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Ancient Divination and Experience$

Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy and Esther Eidinow

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198844549

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198844549.001.0001

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Divination and the ‘Real Presence’ of the Divine in Ancient Greece

Divination and the ‘Real Presence’ of the Divine in Ancient Greece

(p.203) 9 Divination and the ‘Real Presence’ of the Divine in Ancient Greece
Ancient Divination and Experience

Michael A. Flower

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter applies Robert Orsi’s concepts of ‘real presence’ and ‘abundant history’ to the study of ancient Greek religion, using divination as a case study. It proposes that we should take real presence seriously as something that most Greeks took for granted. Although investigating religious experience is extraordinarily difficult, one of the best places to look is in the ubiquitous practice of divination. For it is in the context of the divinatory ritual that the real presence of the divine was commonly to be experienced. Case studies include the epiphany of Asklepios to Isyllos of Epidauros, the lead oracular tablets from Dodona, and the role of divination in the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BCE. The latter event is compared to the belief of the Lakota Sioux that their ghost shirts would protect them from bullets at the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. In both cases, a collective belief in prophecy and in the real presence of supernatural forces instilled an assurance of victory, and this assurance was then followed by a rejection of the religious specialists who had promoted a positive interpretation of the message and the outcome.

Keywords:   divination, Dodona, epiphany, Ghost Dance, Isyllos of Epidauros, real presence, religious belief, Robert Orsi, Sicilian expedition, Wounded Knee, Battle of

In the introduction to the third edition of his justly famous book, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, Robert Orsi, one of the leading scholars of modern American religious experience, observes:

We scholars of religion have become better over the past twenty-five years at approaching the density of practices, objects, gestures, and so on, that constitute religious worlds. We have taken the point of the embodiment of the religious practitioner. But the essential reality of the shrine on 115th Street in the experience of practitioners is that the Madonna is really there, in that church, in her image, on that street; that she and her devout are present to each other; and that she listens and responds to their needs.

Yet, as Orsi points out, this way of understanding the Madonna is at odds with normative modern scholarship, in which ‘absence’ is the dominant assumption: ‘By the persistent logic of modern ways of understanding religion, culture, and history, the Madonna is a symbol, a medium of exchange, and a tool in the hands of people working on their cultural environments. But she is not a real presence.’1

For many Roman Catholics the ‘real presence’ of the divine in things, such as in the Eucharist, statues, and relics, is not something that is culturally constructed, but is considered to be a numinous causal agent in its own right. This agent is autonomous and independently operative in history. One does not have to accept the strong ontological claim that the numinous power of the Virgin Mary is actually present in her statue in order to accept that for believers this presence is, in fact, based on their own personal experience. The Greeks, of course, may or may not have conceived of the (p.204) relationship between cult statue and divine presence in the same way that some modern Catholics do.2 But that is not my concern here. What I am proposing is that we should take real presence seriously, as something that most Greeks took for granted, when investigating the various rites of divination that they practised. Of course, this is not going to be easy, and not just because of the impossibility of doing the sort of anthropological fieldwork in which Robert Orsi is able to engage. It is also difficult because only a handful of sources address the experience of divination in such personal terms. Will a focus on real presence make any difference in the way that we understand Greek religious experience? Orsi addresses this type of question in his introduction (xx–xxi). He asks what it means to think from the assumption of real presences, and concludes:

Its arrival now marks for me the next stage in a theoretical development that has been unfolding through this past quarter century, from ‘popular religion’ to lived religion to what I am now thinking of as ‘abundant history.’ I mean by this an empiricism open to the realness of the gods in the company of men, women, and children in the circumstances of their times.

Orsi himself went on to provide an example of this kind of history in his magisterial study of the experience of ‘real presence’ (including apparitions of the Virgin Mary) in postwar Roman Catholicism.3 What follows is an attempt at writing an ‘abundant history’ of ancient Greek religion.

Now I first want to neutralize what some will assume is a fatal objection to this entire project. It has been argued, and rightly so, that we can never have direct access to another person’s religious experiences. Those experiences, it is claimed, are culturally constructed and only exist in the act of reporting them. As Robert Sharf has expressed it in a highly tendentious essay, ‘I have suggested that it is a mistake to approach literary, artistic, or ritual representations as if they referred back to something other than themselves, to some numinous inner realm.’4 Or as Brent Nongbri has more recently asserted in his controversial book Before Religion: A History of a Modern (p.205) Concept, ‘Strictly speaking, people who claim to study religious experience are actually studying narratives of experiences.’5 Yet to me at least, it is far from self-evident that our inability to have direct unmediated access to another’s experience (that is, an access unmediated by language) should stop us from speaking about ‘religious experience’ as a particular category of human experience. After all, we cannot have direct access to another person’s thoughts, but that does not keep us from forming opinions about their motives, beliefs, and plans—all of which are largely, but not exclusively, accessed through language. At the level of material culture, beliefs may be inferred from the objects that people possessed and the rituals in which they engaged.6 The many portable images of deities and moveable altars that were kept in Greek houses as well as the dedications made at Greek sanctuaries, especially votive reliefs, may reflect both particular beliefs as well as an overarching worldview.7 In other words, religious experience is not so uniquely a subjective, elusive, and remote object of investigation that any attempt to understand it is a fool’s errand.8

Investigating religious experience is nonetheless extraordinarily difficult. Yet a good place to look, and arguably one of the best places, is in the ubiquitous practice of divination. For it is in the context of the divinatory ritual that the real presence of the divine was commonly to be experienced.9 It was the venue in which the gods were expected either to manifest themselves directly (through dreams and epiphanies) or to make their presence known indirectly (through signs, omens, and ecstatic utterances).

A very succinct, and I assume normative, definition of divination is expressed by Xenophon’s Sokrates in the Memorabilia: ‘In so far as we are unable to foresee what is advantageous for the future, the gods themselves work with us, indicating through divination to those who consult them what (p.206) is going to happen and teaching them how to obtain the best results.’10 As Xenophon makes clear both here and in many similar passages, the reason for performing a divinatory ritual is to receive advice and assistance from the gods.11 Nonetheless, as modern anthropological studies have revealed, the divinatory ritual also has consequences that are social, political, and psychological, such as resolving indecision, building consensus, and boosting morale.12 Although some Greeks, such as military commanders, were fully aware of these secondary functions, one should not conflate or confuse the by-products with the fundamental purpose.13 First and foremost, divination is a system of communication.14 But, like other religious practices, divination also has various direct and indirect consequences, which are, in effect, its secondary functions.

In what follows, I am going to discuss some incidents that give us an ‘indication’ of the presence of the divine. I use the word ‘indication’ deliberately, since we do not have access to actual experience but merely to a verbal, or linguistically coded, representation of it. No single example is completely transparent, but one would have to be very cynical indeed to read all of them as cases of self-interested or literary invention. Of course, the decision of an individual or a community to advertise an encounter with divinity is going to be variously motivated; but these motives do not negate the perceived reality of the divine presence. It is essential to keep in mind that according to the Greeks’ ontological conception of how reality is put together, the gods took an interest in the welfare of human beings and were both willing and able to interact with them.15

(p.207) 1. Isyllos of Epidauros encounters Asklepios

At the end of the fourth century BCE, Isyllos came to the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros as a boy hoping for a cure from some illness. This was just at the time when Philip II of Macedon was leading an army against Sparta in 338 BCE.16 By his own testimony, Isyllos encountered an epiphany of the god Asklepios, who informed him that he was on his way to save the Spartans. Isyllos then took the opportunity thus offered to report this good news to the Spartans himself. Years later, he erected a stēlē at Epidauros, which can still be seen in the museum there.17 It contains the following elements divided into seven sections, and composed in several different meters, for a total of seventy-nine lines of text. Isyllos first proclaims his allegiance to aristocratic government; next comes his proposal to institute a yearly procession, sacrifice, and prayer to Apollo Maleatas and Asklepios, to be performed by a select group of elite Epidaurians. This is followed by the information that Isyllos had sought approval from the oracle of Apollo at Delphi to inscribe a paean that he had composed for Apollo and Asklepios, and which undoubtedly was intended to be performed during the annual procession and sacrifice. The text of the paean is then given. The final section relates the original epiphany of the god in Isyllos’ boyhood. It is in hexameter verse and worth quoting in full (lines 57–79):

καὶ τόδε σῆς ἀρετῆς‎, Ἀσκληπιέ‎, τοὖργον ἔδειξας‎

ἐγ κείνοισι χρόνοις ὅκα δὴ στρατὸν ἦγε Φίλιππος‎

εἰς Σπάρτην‎, ἐθέλων ἀνελεῖν βασιληίδα τιμήν‎.

τοῖς δ‎’ Ἀσκληπιὸ‎[ς ἦ‎]λθε βοαθόος ἐξ Ἐπιδαύρου‎,

τιμῶν Ἡρακλέος γενεάν‎, ἇς φείδετο ἄρα Ζεύς‎.

τουτάκι δ‎’ ἦλθε ὅχ‎’ ὁ παῖς ἐκ Βουσπόρου ἦλθεν κάμνω‎[ν‎

τῶι τύγα π‎⟨ρ‎⟩οστείχοντι συνάντησας σὺν ὅπλοισιν‎

λαμπόμενος χρυσέοις‎, Ἀσκλαπιέ‎. παῖς δ‎’ ἐσιδών σε‎

λίσσετο χεῖρ‎’ ὀρέγων ἱκέτηι μύθωι σε προσαντῶν·‎

“ἄμμορός εἰμι τεῶν δώρων‎, Ἀσκληπιὲ Παιάν‎,

ἀλλά μ‎’ ἐποίκτειρον‎.” τὺ δέ μοι τάδε ἔλεξας ἐναργῆ·‎

“θάρσει· καιρῶι γάρ σοι ἀφίξομαι‎, ἀλλὰ μέν‎’ αὐτεῖ‎,

τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις χαλεπὰς ἀπὸ κῆρας ἐρύξας‎,

(p.208) οὕνεκα τοὺς Φοίβου χρησμοὺς σώιζοντι δικαίως‎,

οὓς μαντευσάμενος παρέταξε πόληι Λυκοῦργος‎.”

ὣς ὁ μὲν ὤιχετο ἐπὶ Σπάρτην· ἐμὲ δ‎’ ὦρσε νόημα‎

ἀγγεῖλαι Λακεδαιμονίοις ἐλθόντα τὸ θεῖον‎

πάντα μάλ‎’ ἑξείας‎. οἳ δ‎’ αὐδήσαντος ἄκουσαν‎

σώτειραν φήμαν‎, Ἀσκλαπιέ‎, καί σφε σάωσας‎.

οἳ δὲ ἐκάρυξαν πάντας ξενίαις σε δέκεσθαι‎,

σωτῆρ‎’ εὐρυχόρου Λακεδαίμονος ἀγκαλέοντες‎.

ταῦτά τοι‎, ὦ μέγ‎’ ἄριστε θεῶν‎, ἀνέθηκεν Ἴσυλλος‎

τιμῶν σὴν ἀρετήν‎, ὦναξ‎, ὥσπερ τὸ δίκαιον‎.

And you gave this demonstration of your power, Asklepios, at the time when Philip was leading an army against Sparta, wishing to destroy the royal authority. Asklepios came to them from Epidauros as a helper, honouring the progeny of Herakles, which Zeus then spared. He came at that time when the boy [i.e. Isyllos], being ill, came from Bousporos [a nearby town]. Shining in your golden armour, you met him as he approached, Asklepios. And when the boy saw you he approached you, and stretching forth his hand, he beseeched you with a suppliant word, ‘I am without share of your gifts, Asklepios Paean, but have pity on me.’ Then you spoke these words to me distinctly, ‘Take courage, for I shall come to you in due time — just wait here — after I have warded off a grievous doom from the Lakedaimonians because they justly preserve the oracles of Apollo, which Lykourgos set in order for the city after he had consulted the oracle.’ And so he went to Sparta. But my mind incited me to report the arrival of the god to the Lakedaimonians, everything in exact order. They listened to me as I spoke the message of safety, Asklepios, and you saved them. They proclaimed that everyone should receive you with hospitality, calling you the saviour of spacious Lakedaimon. Isyllos dedicated these things to you, O far the best of all the gods, honouring your power, as is just.18

I take this text to be an example of divination in action, since the boy was on his way to Epidauros to seek a cure from the god and the god, in this roadside epiphany, makes a double prediction. Although the majority of pilgrims to Epidauros slept in the sanctuary in order to be healed of an illness rather than to be given an oracle per se, Asklepios is not here providing a cure, but delivering advice (‘take courage’), instructions (p.209) (‘wait here’), and a statement about the future (I will save the Spartans).19 Now Isyllos was clearly both pious and politically conservative, but he was not a very good writer, and his manner of expression sometimes produces an apparently unintended obscurity.20 In my opinion, the most natural interpretation of the grammar and syntax of his description of events is that the boy (pais in Greek) referred to is Isyllos himself (rather than an unnamed boy or a son of Isyllos who had the same name as his father).21 In other words, Isyllos first refers to himself in the third person (the boy) and then in the first person (I/me). There is a similar example of someone alternating between the first and third person (even in the same sentence) in the question that a certain Epilytos posed to the oracle of Zeus at Dodona (discussed below).

If this interpretation of the text is correct, Isyllos would have been between seven and fourteen years old at the time when Asklepios appeared to him on the road and promised to cure his malady.22 Obviously, there is a chronological gap between the epiphany and its recoding in this inscription. Yet the question at hand is not whether a supernatural power actually manifested itself to the boy Isyllos, but whether Isyllos himself believed that he had had a direct and personal encounter with a god and how that belief affected his immediate and future actions over a period of many years.

I am going to suggest that we can accept two things as facts, in so far as any event in the past can be so called. First of all, it should have been a matter of public record that Isyllos immediately reported the god’s message at Sparta, even in direct violation of Asklepios’ injunction that he should await his return on the spot. Secondly, many years later, he asked the oracle of Apollo at Delphi for permission to have his paean for Apollo and Asklepios inscribed (lines 32–6). That petition surely indicates that Isyllos (p.210) sincerely believed in the reality of the god’s epiphany. Otherwise, in terms of normative Greek religious belief, he took a remarkable gamble in seeking Delphic permission to advertise a lie.

Even apart from the rare circumstance that we are dealing with a first person account of an epiphany, Isyllos’ narrative is remarkable for many reasons. As a political statement, it is striking that despite Sparta’s devastating military and territorial losses in the aftermath of her defeat at Leuktra in 371, Isyllos can still look to her as the divinely sanctioned and divinely supported model of good government. This is surely because Isyllos is promoting an image of Spartan society that the Spartans themselves self-consciously projected and that served as the ideal model for Isyllos’ own aristocratic and oligarchic agenda for his hometown of Epidauros (which is explicitly articulated at the beginning of the inscription, lines 1–26).23 In his report of the god’s words, it is debatable whether the adverb ‘distinctly’ (ἐναργῆ‎: a neuter plural used adverbially) refers to their acoustic clarity or to the clarity of their meaning.24 Nonetheless, Isyllos has made a distinctive choice in using this word in reference to something heard rather than to something seen. In the Homeric epics, enargeis is used of the gods when they appear to mortals in their own forms.25 By emphasizing the clarity of what was said, Isyllos focuses the reader’s attention on the content of Asklepios’ message, which is essentially a reaffirmation of the continuing validity of Sparta’s divinely sanctioned political and social order as revealed to Lykourgos by Apollo.

From a religious viewpoint, the form that Asklepios took in this epiphany is unique. It has become a commonplace that the way we imagine the gods is culturally constructed.26 Yet this is the only representation of Asklepios, either literary or iconographic, in full armour. Obviously, given the militaristic content of the god’s message, this is appropriate in the circumstances. If Asklepios is going to save the Spartans from a Macedonian invasion, then, like the gods who fought at Troy, he will need to be armed. Yet the comparison to the descriptions of Asklepios in the Epidaurian miracle inscriptions, which must have been known to Isyllos, is striking to say the least. The miracle inscriptions were inscribed and put on display at the end of the fourth century BCE. Pausanias mentions six stēlai; we have fragments of four, comprising the account of some seventy cures. The stēlai were (p.211) probably placed in the abaton (which took the form of a double stoa) where the pilgrims slept, since a number of grooved stēlē bases have been found there. Like Isyllos’ inscription, they would have been on display for patients and visitors to read.27

In all but one of those inscriptions, the god appears to the suppliant in a dream. The one exception is the report of an epiphany (LiDonnici 1995: B 5), in which Asklepios, in the guise of a handsome man, operates on a woman suffering from false pregnancy and removes two foot-basins full of creatures from her stomach. As in our story, this epiphany took place on the road, when the woman was being carried back to her home on a litter. But that report is not an eyewitness account—rather, like the other inscribed miracle stories, it has been redacted (from a votive or oral tradition) by the priests in charge of the cult who chose to display them as a group in the sanctuary at Epidauros.

The closest parallel to Isyllos’ experience is the epiphany of Pan to the runner Pheidippides, who had been dispatched from Athens to Sparta in 490 BCE to request military assistance against the Persian invaders. According to Herodotos, Pheidippides claimed that when he was in the vicinity of Mt Parthenion in the Peloponnese, Pan encountered him and ‘told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, even though he had goodwill for the Athenians, and had often been useful to them in the past and would again be so in the future.’28 Herodotos then says that the Athenians, when their affairs were in good order (i.e. after the Persians had been repulsed), ‘trusted in the truth of this report’ (καὶ ταῦτα μὲν Ἀθηναῖοι‎…πιστεύσαντες εἶναι ἀληθέα‎) and established a shrine for Pan beneath the Acropolis as well as yearly sacrifices and a torch race.29 The archaeological evidence supports Herodotos’ testimony that the cult of Pan was introduced to Athens shortly after Marathon.30

I will not go through the various similarities and differences in these two accounts,31 except to highlight a few things that are especially relevant in the context of divine presence. A significant difference is that Asklepios’ promise of support, unlike that of Pan, was not contingent on receiving cult. A striking similarity is that both the Athenians and Spartans believed in the truth of what Pheidippides and Isyllos had claimed to have seen and heard. For these two communities, so different in their political and social (p.212) organization, there was no difficulty in believing that gods sometimes did appear in bodily form to mortals, and especially at times of extreme crisis.32

What I want to stress is that Isyllos’ epiphany is as close to an unmediated account of a direct encounter with a god as we are ever likely to obtain from Classical Greece. Pheidippides’ encounter with Pan, although much more famous than Isyllos’, is told to us at third hand (Pheidippides to the Athenians, and then the Athenians to Herodotos). It is Isyllos himself who tells us what he saw and what the god said to him. The propagandistic element in the decision to memorialize this encounter cannot be denied;33 yet Isyllos’ motives should not be allowed to invalidate the nature and quality of his experience. Nor should we modern readers be any more suspicious of the historical content because it is written in verse than we would be of the serious philosophical content of Parmenides’ On Nature, also written in hexameters (the metre of Homeric epic).

One more remarkable thing needs to be pointed out. Isyllos’ testimony has attracted very little attention in modern scholarship. Verity Platt, for example, only mentions it briefly and in passing in what is otherwise a very long book dedicated to the very subject of epiphany and representation.34 So too Georgia Petridou in her book on epiphany in ancient Greece accords Isyllos only a passing mention.35 I suspect that Isyllos’ extreme political and social elitism, in conjunction with his unabashed admiration for Sparta, has vitiated against taking his testimony seriously. Needless to say, not all pious Greeks were democrats.

2. More Than What You Bargained For? Strange Responses from the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona

The most authoritative form of divination in the Greek world was that performed by inspired seers at the great oracular sanctuaries, principally (p.213) Delphi and Dodona. In the study of ecstatic divination, most attention has been paid to the experience and psychological state of the inspired prophetess or prophet who becomes possessed and acts as the god’s spokesperson.36 Lisa Maurizio’s seminal 1995 article in JHS remains the essential study of the Delphic Pythia. Much less attention has been directed at the religious experience of the consultant. That is what I shall now attempt to address.

Over 4,000 oracular inscriptions, inscribed on some 1550 lead tablets called lamellae, have been discovered at the site of the oracle of Zeus at Dodona in northern Greece, and now, after a fashion, fully published. Several hundred additional tablets are still awaiting transcription and publication. The following is a typical form of question: ‘X enquires of Zeus Naios and Dione whether it would be better and more good to do y.’ But the word ‘typical’ is misleading if it implies that the consultants themselves were invariably anticipating a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. A few of the lead tablets from Dodona seem to give both question and response, and among them are several remarkable examples.37 I will now discuss three of them, all of which date roughly to the middle of the fourth century BCE. The first example is inscribed:

Side A:

Θεός‎, τύχα‎ · ἐρωτῆ Λυσίας τ‎-

ὸν θεὸν ἦ τυγχάνοι κα τᾶς θαλ‎-

λάσσας ἀντεχόμενος καὶ πε‎-

δέχων ναός‎

Side B:

γῆ οὐθὲν δεῖ τελεῖν‎

On Side A we find ‘God. Good Fortune. Lysias asks the god whether he might be successful by sticking with the sea and taking a share of a ship’; and on Side B: ‘You should do nothing by land.’38 The single word ‘sea’ would certainly have been a satisfactory answer, but the god has gone further and (p.214) directed that Lysias do nothing by land. Considering how risky it was to ‘take a share of a ship’, especially for purposes of sea-borne trade, this is far from being a safe or conservative injunction. One wonders if Lysias had contemplated the possibility that he could be given so restrictive a response, one that effectively eliminated the possibility of economic diversification.

Another tablet gives an even more surprisingly specific and restrictive response.39 The question on Side A is also a very typical one:

Side A:

Θεό‎[ς‎· Tύ‎]χα ἀγαθά‎· Ἐρ‎[ωτ‎]εῖ Ἀντίοχο‎[ς τὸ‎]ν‎ ∆ί‎(α‎) καὶ τὰν‎ ∆ιών‎[α‎]ν ὑπὲρ ὑγιείας‎ [α‎]ὐτοῦ καὶ πατρὸς καὶ ἀδελφᾶς‎· τ‎[ί‎]να θεῶν ἤ ἡρ‎[ώω‎]ν τιμᾶντι λ‎[ώ‎]ïον καὶ ἄμεινον εἴη‎

Side B:

Eἰς Ἑρμιόνα ὁρμάσα‎<α‎>ντι‎·

God. Good Fortune. Antiochos asks Zeus and Dione about his health and that of his father and sister. By honouring which of the gods or heroes would it be better and more good for him?

According to the expectation of most modern scholars, the answer should have listed the deities to whom Antiochos needed to sacrifice. But instead, we get this response on Side B: ‘For him setting off to Hermione.’ Why is he being instructed to travel to Hermione in the Argolid? We know from Pausanias (2.34.6) that there was a sanctuary there of Demeter Thermasia (the epithet Thermasia probably refers to warm springs that had healing powers). So Zeus and Dione are telling Antiochos and his family where to go in order to obtain a cure, and that entailed a very long journey from Dodona. Depending on where Antiochos’ family was from and the exact nature of their illness, the journey could have been costly, inconvenient, and perhaps damaging to their health. And even so, for reasons that we cannot hope to understand, they are not being sent to the much more famous healing sanctuary not very far from Hermione, that of Asklepios at Epidauros.40

The really interesting questions are the ones that we cannot answer. Did it come as a shock or surprise to Antiochos that he was not merely given instructions concerning whom he should sacrifice to? How often did the gods play with one’s expectations? Was there an element of uncertainty in what the god might say, and did this uncertainty cause anxiety in those who (p.215) consulted oracles? In other words, far from resolving anxiety and doubt, I think that we can fairly speculate that a consultation could actually induce these emotions, because the gods did not always play by the rulebook that modern scholars have written for them. This does not mean that anyone seriously feared receiving an oracle that predicted he would kill his father and marry his mother—but it does mean that the consultant might potentially be told something inconvenient or uncomfortable. The story of Teisamenos of Elis, as told by Herodotos, whether real or fictitious, was probably fairly well known: he went to Delphi to ask about having children and was told instead that he would win the five greatest victories, leading him to train unsuccessfully for the pentathlon and eventually to become a celebrated seer in the service of Sparta.41 If one thinks with the assumption of the real presence of the divine in the working of oracles, then that opens up the possibility that the gods can give whatever answer they please, and that answer may not be what the inquirer was hoping to hear.

Modern scholarship by and large has domesticated divination by telling us that questions were carefully posed so as to limit the range of possible answers and that responses never caused someone to do something that they really did not want to do. Generally speaking, both of those assumptions seem to be true, but there are some striking exceptions, and those exceptions reveal a great deal about the level of trust that the Greeks placed in their gods. One is a uniquely formulated question dating from the middle of the fourth century BCE. It was written on one of the new lead tablets from Dodona that were published in 2013:42

θεὸς τύχα ἀγαθά‎· ᾿Επίλυτος ἐπερωτῆι τὸν Δία τὸν Νά‎ïον‎

καὶ τὰν Διώναν τί κα ποιῶν εὐτυχιοῖ καὶ τίνι θεῶν θύσας‎

καὶ πότερα τὰν τέχναν‎ hὰν ἐπαιδεύθην ἐργάζωμαι ἢ ποτ‎’ ἄλ‎-

λο τι‎ hορμάσω καὶ ἦ λαμψῶμαι αἴ κ‎’ ἐπιχηρῆι καὶ πότερα τὰν‎

Φαινομέναν γυναῖκα λάβω ἢ ἄλλαν καὶ πότερα καὶ δὴ‎

λάβω ἢ ποτιμένω‎

God. Good fortune. Epilytos asks Zeus Naios and Dione by doing what and by sacrificing to which of the gods he would prosper, and whether I should work at the craft in which I had been educated or whether I should begin some other occupation, and whether I will be successful43 (p.216) if he puts his hand to it, and whether I should take the woman who shows up (or, less likely, a woman named Phainomena)44 as my wife or another woman, and indeed whether I should take a wife or wait.

Epilytos was amazingly brazen in the number of questions he posed at the same time: perhaps he was trying to save money by paying only one consultation fee and thought that Zeus and Dione could solve all of his personal problems in one go.45 The form of the gods’ response could have been a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. But even so, Epilytos was definitely taking a risk that the whole course of his life might be altered: for instance, he might have gone home to a new wife and new profession. The latter is not as unlikely as it may sound. Among the previously published oracle tablets, we have an example of an inquirer named Arizelos asking what occupation he should undertake: no alternatives are given and the question is essentially open-ended: ‘Gods. Good fortune. Arizelos asks the god by doing or making what thing, it will be better and more good for him and there will be a good acquisition of property.’46 So here we have two Greeks who were willing to let the gods, through the medium of their oracle, direct them to the appropriate profession. If that is not a sure indication of belief in ‘real presence’, I am not sure what is.

3. A Tale of Two Disasters

So far we have been focusing primarily on individual experience of the divine, but I now want to turn to an example of collective religious experience. Here a comparative example from a different historical period that is better documented may help to bring the issue into sharper focus.

In 415 BCE, the Athenians and their allies set sail for Sicily with a huge armada, which was reinforced a year later. It eventually comprised 207 (p.217) triremes (warships) and some 50,000–60,000 men, only a very few of whom returned home alive. In the build-up to this daring enterprise, divine guidance and support was solicited in a number of different forms. The Athenians took the extraordinary step of consulting three of the most authoritative oracles known to them: the oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwah Oasis in Libya; the oracle of Zeus at Dodona in Epiros; and the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.47 Even if the answers as we have them may show signs of subsequent embroidery, the fact of the consultations need not be doubted.48 There was nothing unusual in consulting those particular oracles in addition to Delphi, and consulting more than one oracle on the same issue was also not without precedent.49 The response from Delphi, at least in its apocryphal form, contained a warning. The Athenians were told to fetch the priestess of Athena from Erythrai (or Klazomenai), and her name turned out to be Hesychia (or ‘Quiet’).

On another, less authoritative level, the seers (manteis in Greek) and chrēsmologoi (who were collectors and singers of oracles) played a prominent role in bolstering public confidence. Thucydides is silent on this issue, but Plutarch gives us a hint of what that role had been, implying that both Nikias and Alkibiades employed seers who supported their respective positions—Nikias urging caution and Alkibiades predicting victory.50 Thucydides, for his part, does explicitly reveal one important thing: those seers and chrēsmologoi who supported the expedition had been confident of victory. He tells us this fact retrospectively at the beginning of Book 8:

When the Athenians had recognized the facts [about the destruction of their forces in Sicily], they were harsh to those of the orators who had shared in their enthusiasm for the expedition, and they were angry both with the oracle-collectors (chrēsmologoi) and the seers (manteis), and with as many others who, through the practice of divination, in some way at that time had caused them to hope that they would capture Sicily. (8.1)

(p.218) As a result of the debacle in Sicily, the influence of the chrēsmologoi at Athens seems to have suffered a setback from which it never recovered.51 In fact, references to them in ancient authors are exceedingly rare after the fifth century.52 The seers, however, even if they faced immediate recriminations, retained their influence and importance over time. This was perhaps due to the fact that their expertise in performing certain civic sacrifices and in interpreting divine signs was not replaceable. Or, to put it differently, it was an indispensable tool in maintaining the proper relationship between the human and divine spheres. The chrēsmologoi, however, were dispensable. They and their collections of oracles had been useful tools in the hands of politicians, but the normative religious life of individual and community did not depend on their expertise.53 The important point, however, and the one that I wish to stress, is the normative role that divination, in three different forms, played in implanting the belief in the Athenians that victory in Sicily was assured. This also may help to explain, among many other factors, why the Athenians at Syracuse were so reluctant to give up the siege.

When the siege of Syracuse was going badly, the Athenian generals Nikias and Demosthenes finally decided to return home. Their plan was to do so as secretly as possible and at a given signal, obviously in order to escape the notice of the Syracusans. But just as the Athenians were on the point of embarking on their ships, there was a total eclipse of the moon.54 The date was 27 August, 413 BCE. The historian Thucydides, in his terse account, primarily lays the blame for the Athenian reaction on Nikias:55

When everything was ready and they were on the point of sailing away, the moon, which happened to be full, was eclipsed. Most of the Athenians, taking it to heart, urged the generals to wait, and Nikias (who indeed was (p.219) somewhat too much given to divination and the like) said that he would not even still discuss how the move should be made until they had waited thrice nine days, as the seers were prescribing. For this reason the delay came about for the Athenians who had been about to depart.

As it turned out, the Athenians had just missed their last chance to escape alive. Thucydides leaves it unsaid why the seers and the majority of the soldiers did not wish to depart. Was it due to fear of the eclipse, as the text seems to imply, or was it actually because, despite all of their setbacks, they still were confident of a successful outcome? Did divination have that sort of power over their minds and beliefs? In order to put this question in perspective and to help narrow the range of possibilities, I want to look at a comparable example from more recent history.

The year 1890 witnessed one of the most infamous massacres in American history, even if the numbers involved were comparatively few. At the battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, twenty-five US soldiers were killed, many by friendly fire, and between 150 and 300 Lakota Sioux, most of whom were women and children. One of the root causes was a new religious movement called the Ghost Dance and the ghost shirts that were associated with it. Wearers of the ghost shirt, it was believed, would be protected from the soldiers’ bullets. The movement began benignly enough. The Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka (renamed Jack Wilson) prophesied that if Native Americans performed a Ghost Dance at regular intervals, their old days of happiness and prosperity would be returned to them. Ironically, his prophecy included an injunction against all forms of violence and predicted a peaceful end to white expansion.

As the Ghost Dance spread across the west from tribe to tribe, it underwent various transformations. The Sioux added the ghost shirt, which they believed would repel bullets. Thanks to eyewitness testimonies of the battle of Wounded Knee, we have a very good idea of how this belief in the spiritual power of the Ghost Dance and ghost shirts was put into practice. The battle broke out when soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry attempted to disarm a group of Lakota Sioux whom they were escorting to the Pine Ridge Reservation. It is debatable whether the Lakota had planned armed resistance in advance; but as soon the soldiers attempted to disarm them, the situation became explosive, and there is little doubt that a Lakota fired the first shot.56

(p.220) For my purposes, the most important testimony is that of the Native American scout Philip Wells who served as an interpreter for the army. Two weeks later, he told investigators about the provocative behaviour of the medicine man Yellow Bird, who was attempting to incite the assembled Sioux, and especially the younger men, to resist by force rather than hand over their rifles:57

During this time a medicine man, gaudily dressed and fantastically painted, executed the manoeuvres of the Ghost Dance, raising and throwing dust into the air. He exclaimed ‘Ha! Ha!’ as he did so, meaning he was about to do something terrible, and said, ‘I have lived long enough,’ meaning he would fight until he died. Turning to the young warriors who were squatted together, he said ‘Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us. The prairie is large, and their bullets will fly over the prairies and will not come toward us. If they do come toward us, they will float away like dust in the air.’

Needless to say, Yellow Bird’s guarantee of supernatural protection proved false. After the battle, a wounded Sioux warrior stood over the burned body of Yellow Bird and declared, ‘If I could be taken to you, I would kill you again.’58 An older warrior, by the name of Frog, gave this official testimony to Philip Wells, which includes a conversation the two of them had on the day of the battle:

I raised my head and saw a man standing among the dead, and I asked him if he was the man they called Fox [Wells’ Indian name], and he said he was, and I said ‘Will you come to me?’ And he came to my side. I then asked him who was that man lying there half burned, and he said, ‘I understand it is the medicine man’, and I threw at him (the medicine man) my most bitter hatred and contempt. I then said to Fox, ‘He has caused the death of all our people.’59

(p.221) The Ghost Dance would not be performed again by the Sioux (not even in secret) until 1973, when it was revived by the medicine man Leonard Crow Dog during the occupation of Wounded Knee led by members of the American Indian Movement; but this time the Ghost Dance had a purely symbolic function and the newly made ghost shirts promised no protection from the bullets of the Federal Agents who were besieging the Sioux occupiers.60

Despite all of the risks involved in making such comparisons, I think it fair to say that a similar pattern emerges for the Sioux at Wounded Knee as for the Athenians at Syracuse. A collective belief in prophecy and in the real presence of supernatural forces instilled an assurance of victory. This assurance was then followed by a rejection of the religious specialists who had promoted a positive interpretation of the message and the outcome.61 Both peoples were driven by a type of desperation—the Athenians to add to their empire after their heavy losses in the Archidamian War (including at least a quarter of the population due to the plague), the Sioux to repair the desperate situation in which they found themselves little more than a decade after their victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Although we are dealing with very different cultures, times, and places, a belief in the real presence of the divine and in the certain efficacy of supernatural power is undoubtedly a cross-cultural phenomenon. And that is one of the chief benefits of cross-cultural comparison: it enlightens us as to what people are capable of believing and fortifies us against those who would explain divination, as well as the belief in supernatural powers that divination presupposes, as doing and meaning something other than what the participants themselves supposed.62 If there is anachronism and cultural misunderstanding in the study of divination and of lived religion in general, this is one place where it is to be found.


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I would like to thank the editors of this volume, as well as Nathan Arrington, Harriet Flower, and Kathleen Cruz, for their helpful comments and suggestions.

(1) Orsi 2010: xviii–xix. He is especially critical of Steiner 1989: 121, 123, and 228.

(2) It does seem safe to say that Greeks believed that a divine figure (a cult statue or even a votive statue) could be a ‘seat’ through which the divinity’s presence became manifest. Athena was not always ‘in’ her cult statue, but could use it as a vehicle of presence. See further, Scheer 2000 and Hölscher 2005.

(3) Orsi 2016.

(4) Sharf 1998: 113. But see Gyatso 1999, who contests his controversial view that meditative experience plays no role in Tibetan Buddhism.

(5) Nongbri 2013: 23 and 166 n. 26 uncritically accepts Sharf’s position.

(6) Fogelin 2007 surveys different theoretical approaches to the archaeology of ritual.

(7) See Huysecom-Haxhi and Muller 2015 for an attempt to reconstruct the ritual function and meaning of the terracotta anthropomorphic figurines that were ubiquitous in Greek houses. For votive reliefs, see Platt 2011: 31–50. For the religion of the Greek house, see Boedeker 2008 and Sofroniew 2015.

(8) See especially Taves 2009, who proposes a new method for studying religious experiences, one that considers religious experiences to be special psychological experiences the interpretation of which depends on their cultural and social context. Bush 2014, on the other hand, contends that religious ‘experience’ (both in the narrow sense of particular episodes of awareness and in the boarder sense of the emotional life of practitioners) is an essential theoretical category for the study of religion.

(9) For a discussion of comparative evidence for this question in ancient Chinese divination, see Raphals, this volume.

(10) Xen. Mem. 4.3.12.

(11) Note also Mem. 1.6.2–9; Hipp. 9.8–9; Oec. 5.19–20; Symp. 4.46–9; and Cyr. 1.6.46. For the central role of divination in Xenophon’s theory of leadership, see Flower 2016.

(12) See, for example, Park 1963: 196 (a classic study) and Fortes 1987: 11. Holbraad 2012: 54–74 critiques the main anthropological approaches to divination.

(13) For the distinction between ‘what religion is’ and ‘why people do religion’, see especially Smith 2017: 3–4 and 20–76. His definition of ‘what religion is’ seems apt for Greek and Roman polytheism (p. 22): ‘Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.’

(14) Naiden 2013: 3–38 rightly argues that all forms of sacrifice were seen by the Greeks to be a means of communication between themselves and their gods, even if modern theories of sacrifice usually leave the gods out of the equation, focusing rather on anthropological, sociological, and psychological explanations.

(15) I am not making the strong ontological claim that the Greek gods ‘really’ existed, only the weaker claim that the Greeks interacted with them as if they did. For a nuanced discussion of the ontological turn in the field of anthropology, see Holbraad and Pederson 2017: 1–29.

(16) Actually, Isyllos does not specify which Philip this was: other possibilities are an invasion by Philip III in 317 or by Philip V in 218. My own preference is for Philip II. See Kolde 2003: 257–301 for the dating.

(17) The best edition is Kolde 2003, which has an excellent facing French translation. See also the discussion by Fantuzzi 2010: 183–9 and LeVen 2014: 317–28.

(18) All translations are my own.

(19) Renberg 2017: 21–30, 115–32 argues for a firm distinction between ‘therapeutic incubation’ (as practised at Epidauros) and ‘divinatory incubation’ (as practised at various other sanctuaries), but he admits (116 n. 2) that three testimonies in the fourth century BCE Epidaurian miracle inscriptions (for which see pp. 210–11) are divinatory in nature: the god shows a father where to find his missing son (LiDonnici 1995: B 4); he hints to a widow where she will find her husband’s hidden treasure (LiDonnici 1995: C 3); and apparently a man sailed from Piraeus and slept at the sanctuary when seeking information about missing gold (LiDonnici 1995: C 20).

(20) For example, he has σώιζοντι‎ (a dative singular participle) agreeing with τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις‎ (a dative plural noun), which, strictly speaking, is ungrammatical. We might have expected σώιζουσι‎ (a dative plural participle), especially since it is metrically equivalent to σώιζοντι‎.

(21) I am here following Kolde 2003: 188–90, as against Kavvadias 1885: 83 (either Isyllos himself or an unnamed boy); Furley and Bremer 2001 (vol. 1): 234–6 (Isyllos’ son); and Schröder 2006 (Isyllos’ son).

(22) I am here following the excellent analysis of Kolde 2003: 190.

(23) For Isyllos’ political agenda, see Furley and Bremer 2001 (vol. 2): 230–3. For the Spartan context, see Flower 2009b.

(24) For different views, see Kolde 2003: 198.

(25) Hom. Il. 20.131; Hom. Od. 16.161, 3.420, 7.201; see Koch Piettre 1996: 124–35.

(26) Platt 2011: 1–27.

(27) LiDonnici 1995: 18–19.

(28) Hdt. 6.105.

(29) See Parker 1996: 163–8 on the establishment of the cult.

(30) Parker 1996: 164 reaches this conclusion.

(31) These are discussed by Kolde 2003: 227–9.

(32) As Parker 1996: 164–5 observes, after discussing the archaeological evidence: ‘It looks as if the Athenians did indeed introduce Pan in the aftermath of Marathon because they believed that the god himself had ordered them to do so.’ Platt 2011: 55–6, on the other hand, seems to imply that Pan’s epiphany was invented as a charter myth for the introduction of his cult into Athens, which, in my opinion, is an unwarranted rationalization. More nuanced is Petridou 2015: 13–17, 114, 319–20, who, while not discrediting Pheidippides’ account, interprets the epiphany both as an explanation for the introduction of Pan’s cult and as a crisis management tool.

(33) Fantuzzi 2010: 187 emphasizes that all sections of the inscription ‘form part of an encompassing persuasive strategy to build up Isyllos’ political authority through divine inspiration.’

(34) Platt 2011: 73. But see now the fuller discussion in Platt 2015: 497–9.

(35) Petridou 2015: 33, 39, 176.

(36) See Deeley, this volume, for an analysis of this aspect from a psychiatric perspective. For a cross-cultural comparison, see Flower 2018.

(37) There are two recent editions of the previously published tablets: Lhôte 2006 (which comprises 167 questions, with French translation) and Eidinow 2013 (divided into categories, with English translation). A total of 4,216 additional questions (many of which are extremely fragmentary) can be found in the edition of Dakares, Vokotopoulou, and Chrestides 2013 (with modern Greek translation). But see the review by Lhôte 2014, who points out various problems with the edition.

(38) SEG 23.475 = Eidinow 2013: 98–9, no. 13 = Lhôte 2006: 205–8, no. 96. I am here accepting Eidinow’s text rather than Lhôte’s.

(39) SGDI 1587a and b = Lhôte 2006: 156, no. 68; Eidinow 2013: 105–6, no. 6.

(40) Lhôte’s (2006: 157–8) explanation, based on outdated theories about the migrations of Greek tribes at the time of the purported Dorian invasions, is not credible.

(41) Hdt. 9.33–5, with Flower 2008a.

(42) Dakares et al. 2013 (vol. 2): 34–5, no. 2367.

(43) λαμψῶμαι‎ is a Doric contract future of λαμβάνω‎. Contrary to Dakares, Vokotopoulou, and Chrestides 2013 (citing personal communication with J. Méndez Dosuna; cf. (vol. 1): 58, no. 143A), it is not an aorist subjunctive, since the sigmatic forms are confined to the future, and the inscription itself attests λάβω‎ as the aorist subjunctive. I am indebted to my colleague Timothy Barnes for assistance with this note.

(44) Dakares, Vokotopoulou, and Chrestides 2013 think this is a woman’s name, but it is otherwise only attested for a man in eleven inscriptions dating from the late fourth century BCE to the first century CE, one from Samos and ten from Chios, according to the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names.

(45) See Eidinow, this volume for discussion of the practice of multiple oracular consultations.

(46) Parke 1967: 271, no. 25 = Eidinow 2013: 99, no. 14 = Lhôte 2006: 227–9, no. 107; SEG 15.405a; BE 1956: 143; PAE 1952: 305, 21; fourth century BCE: Θεοί‎ · τύχη ἀγαθή‎ · Ἀρίζηλος ἐπανερωτᾷ τὸν θεὸν ὅ τι δρῶν ἢ ποιῶν λῷον καὶ ἄμεινον ἔσται αὐτῷ καὶ χρημάτων κτῆσις ἀγαθὴ ἔσται‎.

(47) Zeus Ammon at Siwa, Egypt: Plut. Nic. 13 and 14; Zeus at Dodona in Epiros: Paus. 8.11.12; Apollo at Delphi: Plut. Mor. 403b; Nic. 13.

(48) See Parke 1967: 136–7, 149 (on Dodona), 216–7 (on Ammon); and Powell 1979: 17–8. Bowden 2005: 116–7, 149 rejects Athenian consultation of Delphi on the implausible grounds that it was not necessary to ask about assisting one’s allies. Flower 2009a maintains that all three consultations are historical.

(49) E.g. Hdt. 1.49–53 (Kroisos consults Delphi and the oracle of Amphiaraos); Hdt. 9.93 (the Apolloniates consult Dodona and Delphi); Xen. Hell. 4.7.2 (Agesipolis consults Olympia and Delphi); Xen. Poroi 6.2–3 (recommendation to consult both Delphi and Dodona simultaneously). See further Bonnechere 2013. On these multiple consultations, see Eidinow, this volume.

(50) Plut. Nic. 13.

(51) So Oliver 1950: 30 and Mikalson 1983: 40; Smith 1989: 155 is more cautious. For Thucydides’ attitude towards them, see Zimm 2010, who argues that Thucydides considered them to be politically inconsequential. Perhaps too by the end of the fifth century the transition from oral to written culture had undercut their claims to have exclusive access to collections of oracles (see Flower 2008b: 64–5).

(52) Xenophon makes numerous references to manteis, but only once mentions a chrēsmologos (Diopeithes, probably an Athenian, who became involved in the struggle over the royal succession at Sparta in 400 BCE: Hell. 3.3.3). Diodorus (15.54.2, probably drawing from the fourth century BCE historian Ephoros of Kyme) records that ‘local’ Boiotian chrēsmologoi approached the Theban general Epaminondas before the battle of Leuktra in 371 BCE.

(53) For the respective roles of manteis and chrēsmologoi in Greek society, see Dillery 2005 and Flower 2008b: 58–65 and 2015.

(54) A full treatment of this episode is in Flower (2009a) and (2008b: 114–9); for a description of the eclipse, see Stephenson and Fatoohi (2001). Note also Trampedach 2015: 50–63.

(55) Thuc. 7.50.4.

(56) Andersson 2008: 92, 296, argues that the Lakotas had not planned any resistance. See also the detailed description of the battle in Greene 2014: 215–46, and 227 for the role of Yellow Bird.

(57) Greene 2014: 488 n. 22, and more fully, ‘Philip Wells’s Interview’ in Jensen 2005: 1.128. For Wells’s credibility, see Grua 2016: 41–2, 45–9.

(58) Brown 1998: 345–6.

(59) For Frog’s testimony, which was given to Wells on 7 January 1891, see Reports and Correspondence Relating to the Army Investigations of the Battle of Wounded Knee and to the Sioux Campaign of 1890–1891 (National Archives, United States), Microfilm 983, Roll 1, pp. 717–18. Wells later provided a longer and more circumstantial account of his exchange with Frog in an interview that he gave to Eli Ricker in 1906 (text in Jensen 2005: 1.130).

(60) Mary Crow Dog provides a vivid description of these events (Crow Dog and Erdoes 1990: 144–55, esp. 153).

(61) On the ambiguous status of religious expertise in Athens, see Bowden, this volume.

(62) Bloch (1998) stresses the importance of the anthropologist providing an ethnographic account of the conceptualization of a society that makes sense to native informants. To me that means that we should attempt, in the first instance, to explain a society’s beliefs and practices in that society’s own terms.