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The Portrait of a Seer. The Framing

of Divination Paradigms through Myth
in Archaic and Classical Greece
emilio surez de la torre

15 1.  Introduction
Divination is a fascinating field of study in every culture, ancient and mod-
ern, but in the case of ancient Greece 1 it has the added value of being a
fundamental pillar of its civilization and, therefore, a decisive key to under-
20 stand it, as well as a splendid device to analyze many aspects of Greek society.
However, it is of great importance to bear in mind that neither ‘divination’
nor ‘seer’ is a clear-cut concept. Moreover, if there is a semantic field where
the more usual concepts used to analyze ancient cultures (and nowadays
submitted to strong discussion) blur their limits, this one is divination: reli-
25 gion, magic, rationality vs. irrationality, myth vs. history, and so on, become
mere labels scarcely useful for practical aims, almost empty of a real meaning
when applied to the vast world of divination. To begin with, this term, cor-
responding to Greek ‘mantic’, is not merely ‘knowledge of the future’, but
it was also applied to other operations, such as revelation of hidden things
30 (thanks, of course, to a special power) or to the solution of an enigma or

1 This paper has been made in the frame of the Research Project HUM2005-01941,
of the Spanish Ministery of Science and Education.
Some recent studies have enriched extraordinarily our knowledge of Greek divina-
35 tion; I emphasize the importance of the chapter dedicated by Dillery to the ‘In-
dependent Diviners’ (Dillery 2005) and the monograph written by Flower (2008),
with a thorough and clever discussion of the main problems. In this paper I will
study the figure of the (so to say) legendary seers, including also in this category
some individual representatives of different divination modalities who, according
to ancient sources, were endowed with extraordinary powers. In Dillery’s and Flow-
ers’ works, as well as in other older works on seercraft (starting by Bouché-Leclercq
 ²2003), the ‘historical’ diviners are studied in more or less detail. See also Roth
(1982). A general survey of divination in archaic and classical times can be found
in Suárez (2005b); on ‘mythical’ seers see Suárez (2007b).
650 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

(most often) to the answer given by gods to men in search of solution to a

crucial (personal or collective) situation (travel, marriage, religious matters,
political decisions and so on) or simply looking for private reassurance (‘will
I beget children?’). Concerning the role of the seer 2, his functions range
from the mere use of divination techniques to other religious operations of 5
different kinds and even prodigious aspects (miraculous cures, for instance),
with a very wide scope in his social consideration, depending on historical
context or social circumstances, not to speak of the ‘magical’ perspective
related to the practice of divination. To sum up, from a methodological
point of view (and for a correct understanding of facts and a right evalua- 10
tion of data), it is very important in this case to make use of a strict ‘emic’
approach, in order to avoid a biased appreciation of the information sup-
plied by our sources.
Another important preliminary question is the problem of a distinc-
tion between ‘mythical’ and ‘historical’ diviners. In fact, and strictly speak- 15
ing, this distinction could infringe the precedent precaution of maintaining
an ‘emic’ perspective. Poets can be liars and write ψεύδεα πολλὰ ἐτύμοισιν
ὁμοῖα 3, and therefore they adorned their stories with an excess of imagi-
nation, but no Greek would question the ‘historical’ reality of Melampus
or Calchas. The existence of important seer-families in the ‘historical’ pe- 20
riod shows the inadequacy of such a distinction. Nevertheless, and with-
out violating the methodological rule expressed above, it would be correct
to accept that ancient Greeks acknowledged that the time of the prodi-
gious seers who founded the historical families was over, and that they had
become a paradigm to be followed and imitated as far as the actual cir- 25
cumstances allowed it. Moreover, the imaginary of the Greeks has never
ceased to create a special category of ‘practitioners of the divine’ 4, endowed
with special powers, among which were those belonging to the vast field
of divination. Therefore, in this paper I will try to describe the evolution
of the figure of the seer in the archaic and classical periods by emphasiz- 30
ing, when possible, the connections and interactions between the imaginary
patterns valid for each phase and the actual practice of divination, though
mostly relying on the paradigmatic seers 5. In some cases, I will try to point
to the origin of the innovations detected in the conception and practice
of divination. 35

2 For a very useful discussion of this problem, see Flower (2008) 72–103.
3 See Od. 19.203 (Ulysses), Hes. theog. 27 (the Muses).
4 I am alluding to the title of the book edited by Dignas/Trampedach (2008).
5 With this term I mean the otherwise called ‘legendary’ seers, but I prefer to avoid
this term.
The Portrait of a Seer 651

2.  The creation of paradigmatic seers

In the only (up to this moment) existing comprehensive study on Ancient
divination, Auguste Bouché-Leclercq (²2003) dedicated four chapters to the
5 “individual seers” (as he calls them): one to the ‘devins’ (diviners), represen-
tative of the ‘inductive divination’ (classified as seers of the Heroic Age,
mythical seers, and seers of the Historical Age); another to the prophets-
chresmologues (or intuitive divination); a third one to the Sibyls, and the last
one to the exegetai. This classification, though being more reasonable that
10 it could seem, entails some difficulties. The most important 6 is that, if we
interpret it ad pedem litterae, it functions as if there were a “Heroic period”
followed by history. Of course, I do not mean that Bouché-Leclercq had
such an absurd concept of the history of cultures: it is clear that this clas-
sification tries to reflect a sequence from the point of view of the Greeks,
15 who transferred the existence of the ‘mythical’ heroes to very old times,
chronologically ordered. But the problem is that we know that there is no
such sequence as “first myth, then history” and that myths are creations of
a culture along history.
Therefore, it is important to take into account – as much as possible –
20 the moments, texts, and contexts which gave birth to those myths and, in
the case of the seers, to have a clear idea of the traits of the society who
created them. Each of the groups established by Bouché-Leclercq obeys to
different models, exigencies, and trends of all kinds (even the literary ones),
depending on many circumstances. For that reason, I will modify the types
25 of seers according to some different criteria and emphasize the possible
reasons for the rising of the different models.
Finally, there is the problem of the almost simultaneous appearance of
epic poetry and seers’ genealogies, what demands some consideration of the
interplay between the two aspects.

2.1  The oldest (known) stratum:

seers in the epic

35 Seers are always depicted in a very positive light in myth. This is a permanent
feature since the epic poetry. It is important to underline this fact, because
in some historical periods (more intensively after the Peloponnesian war)
the image of the ‘historical’ seers will be submitted to serious criticism and
divination will be the subject of a strong scepticism 7. The figure of the seers

6 Apart from other misguiding use of terms, such as the equation chresmology =
inspired divination.
7 See Flower (2008) 132–152.
652 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

of the legends seemingly belonging to ancient strata generates a paradigm

aiming at the consolidation of a positive opinion in the society, by under-
lining two main traits: their wide-ranging and portentous capacities and the
support received from the gods. Of course, they are contested, criticized,
and even scorned by many people (chieftains, citizens, and so on). So, from 5
the very beginning there is a real purpose of emphasizing the positive fea-
tures. It seems as if there was a conscious intention of creating a favourable
state of opinion, linked to the not less important purpose of consolidat-
ing a core of solid beliefs concerning some religious practices. This is the
reason why the analysis of the sources allows us to obtain information not 10
only about the practice of divination, but also about some important re-
ligious aspects, and about the mode of configuring a typical image of the
seer valid for subsequent times. It is easy to understand the interest of the
later (‘historical’) seers in linking themselves with these paradigmatic seers
via the genealogies 8. 15

a)  A sketch of the mantic art in the Homeric poems

Common features 20

As a matter of fact, epic (not only ‘Homeric’) poetry has contributed in a

special manner to the configuration of the image of the seer and of divi-
nation in general. Assuming that Iliad and Odyssey represent our oldest pos-
sible testimony to build up a picture of Greek divination, a comprehensive 25
account of the practices described or alluded to in both poems, as well as
of the seers mentioned in them, is a necessary step if we wish to obtain a
historical perspective of the question 9. However, as in many other features,
there are relevant differences between the two poems. It seems that some-
thing has changed from one poem to the other, and not only for reasons 30
related to the different theme and structure.
In general terms, it seems that the possibility of predictions, the ­certainty
that there is a multiplicity of signals to be interpreted, is more important
than (even) the figure of the diviner. The weight is on the side of communica-
tion, more than on the side of the interpreter. And usually the only prereq- 35
uisite for the interpreter is a certain amount of nous. The frequent ominous
signs found in these poems 10 (most of them involving birds) are not always

8 But there were also other ‘individuals’ who did not descend of a ‘mythic’ seer.
9 See Kaufman (1979).
10 They show a very varied typology. For instance, of the 21 signs mentioned in the
Iliad “one is a plague, six involve birds, seven are Zeus’ thunder and lightning, one
The Portrait of a Seer 653

interpreted by seers. The appearance of an eagle carrying a snake is judged a

bad omen by Polydamas, who advises Hector not to fight against the Achae-
ans beside the ships. He is not properly a seer, as can be deduced from his
own last words (“this is what a seer would interpret …”) 11. At some given
5 moments the characters of the poems act as seers: Patroclus, when he is
dying, utters an actual prophecy, announcing the death of Hector 12. Or we
find Achilles’ horse in this prophetic function 13. Sometimes predictions are
given by divine characters, like Proteus, who prophesies the immortal after-
life destiny of Menelaus in the Islands of the Blessed 14, or Athena-Mentes,
10 who predicts Odysseus’ return 15. Iliad and Odyssey mention also the oracular
sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi and of Zeus at Dodona, but it would be
hazardous to infer from those mentions that the mantic procedure coincide
with what is known of later periods. Gods send also their messages through
dreams, and not always to favour a situation, as Agamemnon could experi-
15 ment: he receives from Zeus a misleading dream 16. Dreams have complex
signs to be deciphered, and they are often misinterpreted 17. But they are
deemed substantial in the process of divination and their right interpre-
tation requires a specialist, the oneiropolos. However, in this old phase of
divination they are not bond to a particular conception of human’s soul,
20 as will be the case later 18: they are simply sent by gods as a mere means of


is a shooting star, one is Eris, one is a dusty wind and four are unspecified”, Kauf-
man (1979) 49–51.
30 11 Il. 12.228 f.: ὧδε χ’ ὑποκρίναιτο θεοπρόπος, ὃς σάφα θυμῷ / εἰδείη τεράων καί
 οἱ πειθοίατο λαοί. See Kaufman (1979) 80. As Trampedach (2008) 216 says, “If
Polydamas can play the seer without actually being one, then one quickly gains the
impression that in general, no special or secret knowledge is necessary in order to
interpret Homeric signs from the gods”. The possession of a reasonable nous and
intelligence is decisive: Polydamas is a wise adviser.
35 12 Il. 16.844–861. Cf. 859, where Hector understands it as a prediction: Πατρόκλεις,
 τί νύ μοι μαντεύεαι αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον;
13 Il. 19.408–417.
14 Od. 4.426–459; he gave him also information about other nostoi (this implies a paral-
lel between him and the aoidoi  …).
15 Od. 1.200–205.
16 Il. 2.8–40. On this particular narrative technique see Morrison (1992).
17 As is the case with Penelope, Od. 20.536–553: she mistrusts the dream of the eagle
that kills the geese, as being false (sent by Zeus through the bone gate).
18 Cf. Pindar fr. 131b Maehler (though it is not exempt of hermeneutic problems).
654 Emilio Suárez de la Torre


Beyond the common features, there are specificities in both Homeric poems
that allow us to postulate that something has changed in the time between
the composition of both poems, and the seers of each poem are a substantial 5
key to make out this difference 19. To begin with, there is a great difference
between Calchas’ role and of others, and not only as literary characters, but
also in relation to their functions and the exercise of their powers. As Kauf-
man has observed 20, his (i. e. Calchas’) “introduction is longer than that given
to any other seer in the Iliad   ” 21, and for good reasons. Calchas, grand-son of 10
Apollo 22, had a decisive role in the success of the expedition to Troy. The de-
scription of his qualities 23 establishes a paradigm with great influence after-
wards, and it deserves some attention, because it mentions a clearly inductive
technique (οἰωνοπόλων ὄχ’ ἄριστος) besides a capacity of ‘omnitemporal’
knowledge that seems innate (ὃς ᾔδη τά τ’ ἐόντα τά τ’ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ’ 15
ἐόντα). The latter is immediately confirmed by his revelation of the causes
of the plague: he knows that the reason is Apollo’s anger. I want to empha-
size that this important scene of the Iliad is a duplication of the traditional
scheme of the oracular consultations, perceptible even at the level of the vo-
cabulary. The army is suffering λοιμός and λοιγός 24, and Achilleus proposes 20
a consultation to the possible professionals of the sacred: the seer, the priest
or the specialist in dreams. He displays different alternative explanations for
Apollo’s anger, usual in the oracular questions and responses. Then we find
the presentation of Calchas, who takes (reasonably) precautions against the
reaction of Agamemnon. Achilleus reassures the seer and asks him to tell the 25
prediction he knows (θεοπρόπιον ὅ τι οἶσθα); moreover, he remembers that
the seer usually explains to the Achaeans the theopropiai of the god, which
he cannot know merely by prayer (εὐχόμενος). And we have finally Calchas’
answer, a very clear oracle. Concerning the interpretation of signs, Odysseus 25
describes the decisive prediction given by the seer at Aulis, a complex σῆμα 30
that was perfectly deciphered by Calchas (the term θεοπροπέων describes
it again).

19 On the characteristics of each of these seers in relation to the problem of the
­‘authority’, see now Trampedach (2008).
20 Kaufman (1979) 32.
21 In the Odyssey, the introduction to Theoclymenus is especially long, but for the
particular reasons I indicate below.
22 The genealogy is: Apollo – Thestor – Calchas.
23 Il. 1.68–100.
24 See lines 61 and 67.
25 Il. 2.301–330.
The Portrait of a Seer 655

A series of seers also mentioned in the Iliad share a common trait: de-
spite their powers, their sons die at Troy. So, Merops 26 is introduced as a seer
who περὶ πάντων / ᾔδεε μαντοσύνας, but despite his advice to his sons,
Adrestus and Amphius, they went to fight for Troy and died there. In the
5 side of the Achaeans, Polyidus 27, the famous Corinthian seer 28, had often
warned his son Euchenor that he would had a terrible choice: either to die
at home from a painful sickness or to be killed by the Trojans. Euchenor
chose the second alternative. The case of Eurydamas 29, introduced as an old
ὀνειροπόλος, is somewhat different: he did not interpret their sons’ (Abas
10 and Polyidus) dreams, when they departed for Troy, and they perished. Fi-
nally, out of this group is the case of Ennomus 30, a leader of the Mysians,
who is defined as οἰωνιστής, whose knowledge did not prevent him from
dying at Troy. In all these examples we must not appreciate a critical opinion
on seer craft (perhaps only in the case of Ennomus). I think that there is,
15 on the one side, a feeling of helplessness regarding fate and, on the other
(cf. Euchenor), an interest in showing that man has a last possibility of de-
cision, even when confronted to terrible alternatives. But probably the best
explanation is that these episodes contribute to reinforce the idea that seers’
advices must not be dismissed.
20 A modest counterpart of Calchas on the Trojan side is Helenus 31, who
shares with him the first the formula of introduction: οἰωνοπόλων ὄχ’
ἄριστος 32. Of special importance is the way in which his capacity as seer is
performed 33. When Athena and Apollo are discussing about how to stop the
war, Helenus perceives their words. The poet explains it as a process of un-
25 derstanding the divine decision through his thymós   34. But Helenus describes it
neatly as “to hear the voices of the gods” 35. So, we have now the advantage
of being informed of the source of the information that the poet transforms
in a counsel to the Trojans (in contrast to the interpretation of Calchas).
Finally, it must be stressed that we do not find in the Iliad any allu-
30 sion to genealogies of seers. The acquisition or origins of their powers are
not elucidated, but it is at least clear that they are not inherited from the
ancestors 36.

26 Il. 2.831 f.
35 27 Il. 13.663.
28 Described favourably as γέρων ἀγαθὸς Πολύιδος (666).
29 Il. 5.149.
30 Il. 2.858–860.
31 Cassandra acts not as a seer in the Iliad.
32 Il. 6.76.
33 Il. 7.43–54.
34 Τῶν δὲ Ἕλενος […] σύνθετο θυμῷ / βουλήν, ἥ ῥα θεοῖσιν ἐφήνδανε μητιόων (44 f.).
35 ὧς γὰρ ἐγὼν ὄπ’ ἄκουσα θεῶν αἰειγενετάων.
36 Calchas is not an exception: his father is no mantis.
656 Emilio Suárez de la Torre


In the Odyssey the category of seers has a varied representation. First, the
poet of the Odyssey has leaved us a real gem concerning the role of the seer.
The picture of the small kingdoms of the “old times”, seen through the 5
eyes of the archaic period, includes the use of a new term to describe some
important “itinerant workers of the community”, the δημιοεργοί, among
which is the mantis, who can be invited as xenos  37. In this passage the seer is
placed at the same level than the healer, the carpenter, and the singer. This
is an important change, if compared with his role in the Iliad: they are clearly 10
independent professionals. However, it does not exclude the existence of
seers linked to a specific town, members of the local families, endowed with
those powers. As a local diviner we find in Ithaca only Halitherses, “who
could see forwards and backwards” 38. He was an old man, introduced as
the only among their coevals acquainted with omens and predictions 39. In 15
fact, he interprets the omen of the eagles fighting 40. The language used in
his interpretation has some significant traits shared with that of the Del-
phic oracle 41. For instance, to explain that the omen means that the end of
the suitors is near, he says that τοῖσιν γὰρ μέγα πῆμα κυλίνδεται 42, and
in order to advice then to refrain from their insolence he uses the ‘oracular’ 20
formula τόδε λώϊόν ἐστιν. As a new parallel with Calchas, he also had an-
nounced Odysseus return to the suitors: he remembers the exact words of
his prediction and regrets that it has been dismissed 43.
The rest of the seers of the Odyssey have not properly a ‘professional’
role, and their mentions are bond to different episodes of the action. To 25
one of them, Telemus Eurymides, is attributed a prophecy given much time
ago to Polyphemus, described as παλαίφατα θέσφατα 44, which at that mo-

37 Od. 17.383–386. 30
38 Od. 24.451 f., ὁ γὰρ οἶος ὅρα πρόσσω καὶ ὀπίσσω.
39 ὄρνιθας γνῶναι καὶ ἐναίσιμα μυθήσασθαι. Trampedach (2008) 220 f. has perfectly
realized that, once again, the seer is authenticated by the poet, but he is not uncon-
tested by the community.
40 Od. 2.146–167.
41 Is it a model, or is it more recent than Iliad and there is a contemporary practice 35
of Delphic composition? Anyway, there is an interaction in both senses; the use
of oral epic diction by Delphi has been sometimes defended (Fernández Delgado
1986 and 1991, Maurizio 1997), but the transmitted oracles arouse suspicion: see
infra, n. 134.
42 Od. 2.164.
43 Od. 2.170–176.
44 This is the same expression used by Alcinous at Od. 8.564–569 and 13.172–178,
when he remembers the prophecy told to him by his father Nausithous concerning
the end of the island of the Phaeacians crashed by a mountain launched against
The Portrait of a Seer 657

ment had been fulfilled. Teiresias and Theoclymenus deserve special atten-
tion. Both incorporate into the narrative of the Odyssey the rich dimensions
of the world of divination, using adequate links with other contemporary
stories. Of course, the integration of the two seers in the narratives is very
5 different. Teiresias is the protagonist of an isolated episode, though it has a
significant value. The seer is not only important as a foreteller of the ensu-
ing adventures of Odysseus, or as a mediator with the world of the dead.
He will prophesy even Odysseus’ last days and death. On the other side,
Theoclymenus’ genealogy, which the poet evokes in detail, includes one of
10 the episodes of Melampous’ life that, though deprived of the prodigious
elements 45, functions as a parallel suitable both for Odysseus (victorious
return home) and for Telemachus (initiation of the young warrior 46), not to
mention the impressive effect of the seer’s trustworthiness 47 on the audi-
ence. A particular difficulty is the interpretation of Theoclymenus ‘vision’ in
15 Book 20 48. I do not pretend to reactivate the discussion on the ‘apocalyptic’
value of this scene, but it is important to consider it in the frame of the
different interventions of Theoclymenus in the poem. As a seer, he inter-
prets as a positive omen the flight of the falcon holding a dove on the right
side of the ship, in the journey with Telemachus from the Peloponnese to
20 Ithaca 49. Then, in the presence of Penelope, he announces that Odysseus is
preparing the end of the suitors, foretold by the omen seen on the ship and
previously explained to Telemachus 50. This time, he gives more details and
increases the effect of threat against the suitors. Eventually, his utterance


them by ­Poseidon, who was angered because they transport the strangers who ar-
rive to the island. The destruction of the island would be simultaneous with the
sinking of the ship.
45 On the narrative evolution of the story, from Homer onwards, see Suárez (1992).
30 46 On the initiatory features of this adventures see Walcot (1979) and, more in detail,
Dowden (1989) 97–115. A different (eschatological) interpretation of the cattle
raiding in relation to Pylos (interpreted as “gate of the Underworld”) can be found
in Burkert (1979) 86 f.
47 Dillery (2005) 174, with reference to Erbse (1972), is very convincing against the
analytic scepticism.
35 48 Od. 20.351–357:
ἆ δειλοί, τί κακὸν τόδε πάσχετε; νυκτὶ μὲν ὑμέων
εἰλύαται κεφαλαί τε πρόσωπά τε νέρθε γοῦνα,
οἰμωγὴ δὲ δέδηε, δεδάκρυνται δὲ παρειαί,
αἵματι δ’ ἐρράδαται τοῖχοι καλαί τε μεσόδμαι·
εἰδώλων δὲ πλέον πρόθυρον, πλείη δὲ καὶ αὐλή,
ἱεμένων Ἐρεβόσδε πρὸς ζόφον· ἠέλιος δὲ
οὐρανοῦ ἐξαπόλωλε, κακὴ δ’ ἐπιδέδρομεν ἀχλύς.
49 Od. 15.525–534.
50 Od. 17.152–161.
658 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

before them closes the climax, and the symbolic language he uses increases
the effect of the imminent and tragic end.

b)  Other epic traditions. Divination in the ‘Theban cycle’. 5

Late developments

It can be said that no epic tradition (or no epic poem) lacks his seer. The
Homeric poems are but one example of the multiple possibilities offered
to the singers by the recourse to divination. For its own nature, a prediction 10
opens a narrative space that can be filled with a specific action (more or less
developed), conditioned by the initial prediction, and that will be closed by
the fatidic fulfilment of the oracle. As for the seers, they are specialists in
mediation with the divine and representative of substantial aspects of reli-
gion, and therefore central figures in moments of crisis; on the other side 15
they allow the poet to build an easy contrast, and sometimes neat opposi-
tion 51, with those who represent human authority.
First, the poems of the so called Epic Cycle, together with those of the
pseudo-Hesiodic corpus, develop numerous features of the seers by adapt-
ing them to their wide-ranging themes. For instance, whereas Helenus is 20
described in Homer as a seer (this is no late innovation), it seems that his
sister Cassandra 52, the inspired prophetess in Ancient literature par excellence,
does not (clearly) show his mantic qualities before the Cyclic poems 53. And
this innovation will be decisive not only for the subsequent representa-
tion of the heroine and her literary treatment 54, but also for the creation 25
of a paradigm of women’s role in divinatory rites 55. The fragments of the
pseudo-Hesiodic corpus preserve and give narrative and poetic structure to
the genealogies of the seers and their achievements. As we will see below, the
Melampodidae will be the preferred source of inspiration. The M ­ elampody
included a systematic account of the exploits of many seers, such as Calchas 30
and Teiresias, and not only Melampodidae. It allows us to detect the progres-
sive consolidation of the popularity of the seers, as well as the efforts of the
contemporary seers’ families (and individuals) to gain social prestige and to

51 From the first very confrontation: Calchas vs. Agamemnon, who tries to discredit
52 On the characteristics of Cassandra along the history of Greek literature see
Neblung (1997) and Mazzoldi (2001), with different perspectives.
53 See Mazzoldi (2001) 118, with a discussion of the different theories. The texts are:
Cypria arg.; Il. exc. arg., Il. parv. 15, Nost. 10 Bernabé.
54 Lyric, theatre, Lycophron etc. See the books cited in n. 52.
55 See the central argument of Mazzoldi (on the relation between divination and vir-
ginity), and the studies by Crippa (1990, 1998).
The Portrait of a Seer 659

consolidate their authority. Furthermore, the appearance of new seers (at

least not mentioned in precedent legends) give some hint of the changing
situation. So, the victory of Mopsus on Calchas 56, an example of contest
between diviners, could symbolize, according to Burkert 57, the arrival of a
5 new ‘wave’ of seers from the Orient, though it can also be used to reinforce
the authority of the oracular sites located in Asia Minor 58.
Finally, the connection between these epic traditions and the genealogi-
cal concerns coalesce in some of those traditions, probably to give a solid
basis to the remodelling of the oldest mythical figures and to the younger
10 ones. This is, for instance, what happens with the Theban cycle. Theban
mythology has a venerable antiquity, perhaps since Mycenaean times 59. The
poet of the Iliad mentions several times the Argive fight against Thebes 60,
usually in relation to Diomedes. Even Oedipus’ death is remembered. The
list of epic poems belonging to Theban mythology is not small: Oedipodia,
15 Thebais, Amphiaraou exelasis, Epigonoi, Alcmaeonis. In all of them, seers have
a decisive role. First, on the Theban side, Teiresias, who is a very particular
figure, who accumulates very disparate features, sometimes of a very stan-
dard type (ornithomancy, interpreter of Apollonian omens, etc.), although
more usually he is quite different from the seers’ general picture. He must
20 belong to the oldest strata of Theban mythology. It could be said that he is
more than a seer: he is the voice of Theban divination. His longevity (seven
generations) 61 was necessary to make him remain linked to the vicissitudes
of the Theban royal genos. His mother is a Nymph, Chariclo 62. The acquisi-
tion of powers is quite peculiar too: snakes are involved in it, but not for the
25 usual reason 63, and his mantic capacity is a Zeus’ gift for his blindness: it is
a compensation for the punishment inflicted on him, and therefore, at the
end, is the result of a transgression. Later sources will fuse Delphic, Sibyl-
line and Theban mantic traditions when recounting Teiresias’ offspring 64.

56 Hes. fr. 278.
57 Burkert (1979) 43–84, (1983).
58 On Mopsus see Baldriga (1984), Metzler (1990), Suárez (2005b) 41 f., Dillery (2005)
176–178 (with reference to the motif of the ‘wisdom contest’ in ancient texts).
59 Nilsson (1935); a series of articles have been dedicated by Prof. Ruipérez to the
35 Mycenaean antiquity of Oedipus’ saga (for which, according to him, the evidence of
the name Iocasta would be decisive): they are now collected and revised in Ruipérez
60 Il. 4.222 f., 370–400; 6.406; 11.285 f.; 14.109–114, 323; 19.99; 23.679.
61 Marcos (2000).
62 Father: Everes, descendant from the Spartoi.
63 This time, the contemplation of mating snakes is the cause of his change of sex
(both, from male to female and the reverse).
64 His daughter, Manto, is included in the genealogy of other seers, as mother of
Mopsus or even wife of Alcmaeon. See Lyons (1998).
660 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

So Dio­dorus Siculus says that his daughter, Manto, was taken as prisoner
by the Theban conquerors and sent as an offer to Delphi, where she be-
came an expert composer of oracles and acted as a Sibyl (under the name
of Daphne).
On the Argive side the contrast is evident. There is a warrior-seer 65, 5
Amphiaraus, belonging to the family of the Melampodidae, whose offspring
will continue for many generations the practice of seer craft. His son Am-
philochus will enjoy a great celebrity, and his oracle at Mallus in Cilicia will
be described by Pausanias as the “truest” in his times 66.

2.2  The crystallization of ‘mythical’ genealogies of seers 67:

the case of the Melampodidae

The Homeric poems give us a wide-ranging, but not complete, vision of div- 15
ination and seers in the oldest chronological (literary speaking) level. How-
ever, from the more ‘rigid’ Iliad to the colourist Odyssey something has begun
to change, as we have observed. Moreover, although seers are included in the
list of demioergoi who can be summoned to a royal house, we have also seen
that the treatment of the figure of the seer is now enlarged with the con- 20
struction of genealogies. This is not, of course, an exclusive phenomenon
of divination: the consolidation of the emerging states in Greece and, in-
side them, the search for traditions configuring not only collective identities,
but also those of the different genê, along with a patent interest in justifying
the preservation of privileges, leads to this blooming of genealogical ‘trees’ 25
spread in poetic form by rhapsodes, who contribute to the construction of
a ‘pre-historic map’ of the Greeks.
So, in the period between the second half of the 8th century and the
first half (roughly speaking) of the 6th, there are two decisive phenomena
involving the development of mantic art, as much in the literary tradition 30
about seers as in the actual practice of their craft. Singers will create new
poems, like the Melampody   68 (which looks like a “comprehensive history of
the seers’ lives”), and seers’ ‘biographies’ will be included in other wide-

65 Diod. 4.66–67.
66 Paus. 1.34. He mentions also an altar at Athens dedicated to Amphilochus.
67 For reasons of brevity I have chosen the Melampodidae as a paradigmatic family.
I omit then references to other mantic families with important mythical and histori-
cal representatives, such as Clytiadae, Telliadae and, most especially, Iamidae (see
Suarez 2005b). On Iamus see now the interesting article of Flower (2008).
68 Löffler (1963). Anyway, the real contents of this poem, transmitted as a (pseudo-)
Hesiodic composition, is a much debated issue. But, even if the fragments included
in the Hesiodic corpus belong to a late phase of the epic, the Odysseian passage
The Portrait of a Seer 661

spread oral poems, like de Megalai Ehoiai and some others included in the
pseudo-hesiodic corpus. In the actual practice of seer craft, the widespread
of mantic techniques from the West (brought by ‘wandering seers’ 69) will
lead to the adoption of (or, perhaps, increasing in) specialized practices, such
5 as the inspection of entrails, particularly hepatoscopy 70. Simultaneously, ei-
ther through wandering professionals or due to cultural contacts of a wide-
ranging class, some medical practices, together with purification procedures,
will be adopted and developed by the Greeks.
We can find a synthesis of the new trends 71 in the profile of the seers
10 belonging to prominent families. Among them, the Melampodidae set the
basis for a long lasting paradigm. In some way the profile of the founder,
Melampous 72, Amythaon’s son, is perhaps the most complete of all the
possible types of ancient seers, but in certain aspects he is not representa-
tive of what could be called a ‘pure’ seer: or perhaps we must say that he is
15 representative of a given stratum in the history of seer craft in Greece. In
fact, in this case the term ‘seer’ becomes too unsatisfactory. To begin with,
some of the most prominent Melampodidae (starting from the founder
of the dynasty) belong to royal families and act as warriors in decisive mo-
ments. Some of the most prominent actions of Melampous are achieved in
20 the frame of different adventures in which the role of the seer has nothing
to do with religious or similar functions. Moreover, these warrior-seers are
often involved in dynastic quarrels, not the least because they are members
of royal families. They represent then a kind of ‘mythical’ period charac-
terized by the possibility of the concentration of different powers in the
25 same person. In other words, war, divination and/or healing (to mention the
main aspects) are not fields that need of different ‘specialists’. At least, the
simultaneity of mantic, medical and purifying capacities represent the largest
display of Apollonian powers. As Parker has observed 73, once the μάντις is
plainly absorbed by the Apollonian sphere, he can become a ἰατρόμαντις 74.
30 However, it is interesting to observe that in later (‘historical’) times, and per-
haps with the exception of the capacity of healing, the situation has been not

cited above (Melampous) reveals that something like an “Ur-Melampodie” existed

when the Odyssey was composed or, at least, that it was a repertoire-motif of the
35 bards: the Homeric audience was familiarized with the theme.
69 In the sense studied by Burkert (see supra n. 62).
70 This is the most widespread technique in the Ancient World, from Mesopotamia
to Etruria.
71 I mean: the summing of old epic stratum + new poetical (genealogical) develop-
ments + innovations in the portrait of the seer (whose capacities are now in part
increased, in part modified – or even submitted to a process of specialization).
72 See Suárez (1992a), Nogueras (2002).
73 Parker (1983) chapter 7.
74 Cf. Suárez (1992) 8.
662 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

very different; the seers who accompanied the armies where not exempted
of fighting like the other soldiers 75.
The portrait of Melampous would deserve a too long treatment 76, be-
yond the limits of this contribution. He is the most complete representative
of the paradigmatic seers and the analysis of the evolution in the description 5
of his qualities and adventures is important for the simple reason that it al-
lows us to detect interesting shifts in his presentation. After Homer, there
is an important change 77. The prodigious qualities become more and more
emphasized, starting from their acquisition of powers. The Pseudo-Hesio-
dea, the Athenian theatre, Pherecydes, Pseudo-Apollodorus or Eustathius 10
(among other sources) 78 show that Melampous’ ‘biography’ has grown up
across time (or that some details have been modified) and that an Apollonian
perspective has more and more enriched the profile of this seer. This is the
catalogue of the main episodes fulfilled by the seer (but altering the chro-
nology of sources), presented in abridged manner: Acquisition of powers 79, 15
the cows of Philacus 80, the healing of Iphiclus 81, the healing of the Proitids/

75 See chapter 6 of Flower (2008), entitled “A Dangerous Profession”.

76 See the bibliography cited supra in n. 77 and Dowden (1989) 71–96 (Proitids) and
97–115 Melampous. 20
77 The evolution is analyzed by Suárez (1992a).
78 These are the main post-Homeric sources: Hes. fr. 37.17; 261; 270–274; Pind. Pae.
4.28–30; Hdt. 9.34; Theophr. h. plant. 10.4; Eudox. fr. 313 f. Lasserre (= Steph. Byz.
s. v. ἀζανία); Apollod. 1.9.11; 2.2.2; Diod. 4.68; Paus. 4.36.3; Athen. 11.498; Eust. ad
Od. 11.297 f.; Schol. Il. 13.663; Schol. Od. 11.287 (= Pherec. FGrH 3 F 33); Schol. 25
Pind. Nem. 9.30; Schol. Aischyl. Sept. 569; Schol. Theokr. Id. 3.43; Schol. Apoll.
Rhod. 1.118; Plin. nat. 25.5.21; Prop. 22.3.51–54.
79 According to the Ps.-Apollodorus, Melampous was philtatos to Apollo. Snakes ap-
pear when he is sacrificing to the god in the house of Polyphontes (in Ps.-Apollo­
dorus there was a tree and inside it a nest of snakes). The servants kill them, but
Melampous rears the young ones. When they grow up, they lick his ears and he 30
understands then the language of birds (Eustathius: all animals). Ps.-Apollodorus
adds that he also obtained the art of divination through the inspection of victims,
and that, after an encounter with Apollo in the river Alpheius, he became “the best
of the seers”: 1.9.11 προσέλαβε δὲ καὶ τὴν διὰ τῶν ἱερῶν μαντικήν, περὶ δὲ τὸν
Ἀλφειὸν συντυχὼν Ἀπόλλωνι τὸ λοιπὸν ἄριστος ἦν μάντις.
80 This is the episode remembered by Theoclymenus in the Odyssey, the first exploit not 35
only as a king’s son who shows the solidarity inside the genos, but also as seer and
healer (see next episode). He predicts that he will return with the cows in one year,
he saves his (and others’) life thanks to his capacity of understanding the language
of animals, and not only birds: in this case they were woodworms.
81 The boy had a kind of child’s trauma: he became impotent when his father put be-
side him the knife (full of blood) he has used to geld rams. He cures then Iphiclus’
(son of Phylacus) impotence. This exploit entails more than one skill. He sacrifices
two bulls and summons the birds. A vulture reveals him the origin of the impotence
and the place where the knife was hidden that caused it. The boy is healed with
The Portrait of a Seer 663

women of Argos and the division of the kingdom of Argos 82; Melampous

and the introduction of cults in Greece 83.

 Another important mythical Melampodid was Polyidus, in the fourth gen-

5 eration after Melampous 84. We have not so many sources as in the case of
Melampous, but the profile resulting from what we know is no less fascinat-
ing 85. We have found his name among the seers mentioned in the Iliad. In
parallel with the motif of the dismissed advice of the seer in that poem is the
episode of his counsel to Iphitus, Eurytus’ son, to avoid going to Tiryns (he
10 went there and was killed by Heracles) 86. He is a Corinthian seer, but he acts
also as a ‘wandering’ seer. His first remarkable exploit took place in Crete,
where he could find and resurrect Minos’ son, Glaucus. The story of this

a pharmakon prepared with the rust of the knife (something similar to Telephus’
15 healing with the rust of Achilles’ spear; the oracle said: ὁ τρώσας ἰάσεται). The
fact that the seer summons the birds during a sacrifice fits into the scheme we have
observed above: the frequent appearance of omens in those circumstances (when
the ‘communication’ with the gods is active).
82 This is again an illustration of the medical and/or purifying abilities of the mantis.
And there are also in this episode many other aspects involving religious practices,
20 political aspects and a good amount of legendary motifs attached to women’s social
roles and representations, initiatory rituals and much more. The double alternative
in the mythical themes (Dionysus vs. Hera as deity offended, and Proitus’ daugh-
ters vs. women of Argos) will not be discussed now. As a consequence of this
episode, the kingdom of Argos was divided in three parts and shared by Proitus,
­Melampous and his brother Bias. On this episode see Dowden (1989) passim and
Burkert (²1997) 189–194 (about the Agrionia).
83 At least since the 5th century onwards, Melampous is not only known by episodes
related to divination or healing. Herodotus’ picture transforms him into a religious
innovator, who introduces in Greece the cult of Dionysus (more exactly his phal-
lic rites: Hdt. 1.49). From Herodotus’ point of view, Dionysus and Dionysism are
30 of Egyptian origin, and would have been imported to Greece by Melampous, but
through the mediation of Cadmus and the Thebans. It is possible that this attribu-
tion was based on the mention of Melampous in some source of Onomacritus’
circle. The main link of Dionysus with Orphism is the myth of the god’s tearing
apart by the Titans, the search for the body and his ‘reconstruction’ by other gods.
The supposition that it was of Egyptian origin comes from the parallelism with
35 the myth of Isis and Osiris. See Bernabé (2002a), (2002b); all the orphic texts
and testimonia have been superbly edited also by Bernabé (2004). Usually the ἱεροὶ
λόγοι are attributed to Orpheus, but Melampous is sometimes mentioned. Subse-
quently, Hecataeus of Abdera (FGrH 264 F 25) considers Melampous responsible
for the introduction of other traditions about Cronus, the Titanomachy and all the
 πάθη of the gods; eventually Clemens of Alexandria ( protr. 2.13.5) assigns him
the D­ emetriac rites.
84 Melampous – Clitus – Ceranus – Polyidus.
85 Suárez (1994a).
86 Schol. Od. 21.22.
664 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

exploit (narrated in some detail by Ps.-Apollodorus and Hyginus 87), entails

a valuable amount of small details that allow us to hint at an old stratum of
beliefs in relation to seer craft. Elements like the role of snakes, the refer-
ence to honey, disappearance, resurrection, hiding in a cave with a corpse etc.
awake interesting connotations in the religious imaginary of the Greeks. At 5
the same time, this amazing story allows Polyidus to display his multifaceted
ability as seer. He overcomes the first test to be accepted as the diviner who
could find Glaucus (fallen into a honey-jar): a curious contest based on the
capacity of making the best description of a three-coloured cow 88, perfectly
resolved by Polyidus, who compared it to a mulberry. The seer wins this first 10
‘linguistic’ contest and then he finds Glaucus dead (but Minos wanted him
alive) 89. This time, it is the ornithomancy that allows him to find the boy. His
last exploit in Crete will be the resurrection of Glaucus, thanks to the (in-
voluntary) help of a snake that had brought to life the other serpent killed
by Polyidus when he was shut up with the corpse and was trying to find a 15
solution. The seer applied to the corpse the same herb that had been used
by the serpent and so he brought also Glaucus to life 90. It is difficult to resist
to the idea that, once again, the story of a seer includes keys that lead us to
the world of initiation 91, concerning divination and royal families.
From this first (apparently) ancient level we pass to a very different il- 20
lustration of the seers qualities. The source is Pindar 92, who relates the in-
tervention of Polyidus in Corinthus as a local diviner who acts as mediator
with the gods. Bellerophontes consults him about the manner to tame the
horse Pegasus. The seer advises him to sleep in Athena’s temple, who will
give him instructions. In fact, during this incubation Athena provides him with 25
the bridle (invented by the goddess for that occasion).
Healing and purification are also present in some sources. In a pseudo-
Plutarchean text 93 we find an episode that shares some traits with the story
of the Proitids. This time the protagonist is king Teuthras of Mysia, who
killed a wild boar against the will of Artemis, who punished him with the 30

87 Apollod. 3.2.3; Hyg. fab. 136.

88 This cow had been found by the Couretes.
89 The antiquity of this peculiar motive cannot be demonstrated, though Eur. fr. 389b 35
could include an allusion to it. The expression used by Apollodorus (διά τινος
 μαντείας) could lurk an allusion to ornithomanteia as the instrument to find Glaucus;
in Hyg. fab. 136, where Polyidus finds the child with the help of an owl, but there
is no mention of the seers’ contest.
90 He teaches him the art of divination, but, at the moment of departure, Glaucus
looses his powers after spitting into Polyidus’ mouth (by indication of the seer).
91 See Corsano (1992) 111–134 and Suárez (1994a).
92 Ol. 13.72 ff.
93 De fluviis 21.4.16
The Portrait of a Seer 665

same sicknesses as the Proitids 94. Teuthras was cured by Polyidus, who

erected an altar to the goddess and dedicated to her a golden statue of a
wild boar 95.

5 The next Melampodid I will consider is Amphiaraus 96. His first mention

(genealogy of Theoclymenus) 97, despite his brevity, shows an important dif-
ference with late traditions: he died at Thebes (that is, in the failed conquest
of the town), what means that the legend of his disappearance under earth
is a later one. He is an Argive seer, but his most important deeds are almost
10 always linked to the war against Thebes. Additionally he is mentioned as a
participant in the funeral games for Pelias 98, he was one of Helen’s suitors 99
(Apollod. 3.129–132) and participated in the Calydon’s boar hunting. Re-
covering an old paradigm, but simultaneously reflecting the contemporary
model, he is a brave warrior who, at the same time, has mantic powers: he
15 even predicts his own end. A secondary development makes of him a healer,
without letting aside his mantic capacity (what is perfectly in line with the
tradition of the dynasty). In the Athenian sanctuary of Oropus, the evolu-
tion of the cult is, on the one side, guided by political aims, and then pro-
gressively influenced by the medical cult of Asclepius. As a matter of fact,
20 the oracular consultations progressively disappear.
As usual, our sources diverge in their choice of the main aspects of the
seer, according to their needs. As I have said, he first appears involved in
the dynastic conflicts of the kingdoms of Argos 100 and Thebes. He belongs
then to a very old epic tradition, sung in the times of Homer and incessantly
25 developed across time. Homer introduces him in very positive terms, as a
favourite of Zeus and Apollo, who died because of his wife’s treason 101. The

94 White leper and madness. The whole story shows contamination with Proitids’
30 myth.
95 On the purification of Alcathous, Paus. 1.43.5. But the problem with the syntax of
the text has leaded also to postulate that the purifier is Melampus. Other sources
for Polyidus: Hyginus fab. 49, 136; Ail. nat. 5.2. The three main tragic authors wrote
pieces with the Cretan episode as argument: Aeschylus’ Cretan Women, Euripides’
Polyidus, and Sophocles’ Manteis or Polyidus.
35 96 See now the monograph of Sineux (2007).
97 See above. The passage is Od. 15.243–255.
98 Stesich. 179 PMG.
99 Apollod. 3.129–132.
100 Against Licurgus; this is a very old iconographical motif: see Olmos-Bernabé.
101 Od. 15.244–247: λαοσσόον Ἀμφιάραον, / ὃν περὶ κῆρι φίλει Ζεύς τ’ αἰγίοχος καὶ
Ἀπόλλων / παντοίην φιλότητ’(α)· οὐδ’ ἵκετο γήραος οὐδόν, / ἀλλ’ὄλετ’ ἐν Θήβῃσι
 γυναίων εἵνεκα δώρων. This is an allusion to Eriphile’s necklace. Later on (lines
252 f.), when he speaks of Polypheides, Theoclymenus says that, after Amphiaraus’
death, Apollo made Polypheides the “best seer” among men.
666 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

Thebaid gave details of his brave behaviour during the assault 102, and it has left
for the posterity a successful definition of the warrior-seer, imitated (totally
or partially) by Ps. Hesiodus 103, Aeschylus 104 and Pindar (almost literally) 105:
ἀμφότερον μάντιν τ’ ἀγαθὸν καὶ δουρὶ μάχεσθαι 106. This description will
be chosen by a 6th century diviner for his epitaph 107, what confirms the 5
validity of the paradigm. The Theban legend has an important influence in
the process of rethinking myths across the 5th century. Pindar (as is nor-
mal in a Theban poet convinced of the vicinity of the realms of poetry and
prophecy) 108 mentions Amphiaraus in some odes. Apart from the passage
cited above, where Amphiaraus’ praise is pronounced by Adrastus, he knows 10
a different tradition of hostility between both heroes, and he cites a quarrel
between them, because the seer had killed Adrastus’ father, and then the
Argive hero fled to Sicyon 109. The legend of the Epigones appears in Pyth.
8.39–60, with the problematic mention of Alcmeon’s neighbourhood 110.
However, perhaps the best proof, in a literary text, of Amphiaraus’ para- 15
digmatic and positive consideration is to be found in Athenian drama in gen-
eral and in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes in particular. The description of the
‘watchman’ in lines 568–625 of Seven and the answer of Eteocles show a deep
respect for the diviner, and they underline his valuable role (as a mediator)
and his ‘engagement’ in divine matters. In a certain way these speeches aim 20
at synthesizing Athenian ideal behaviour inside the polis. Seers are negotia-
tors with the divine, and they intrinsically deserve a special respect and con­
sideration. At the same time a reliable seer has very equilibrated phrenes. He
is sophronestatos  111. His insults against Tydeus, his words, announcing his own
end under the earth, the fact that he has no sign on the shield (because he 25
“does not want to seem the best one, but to be it”), all that confirm this positive

102 We have in a scholion to Homer a brief account of the episode of Tydeus’ wound
(Fr. 9 Bernabé), where Amphiaraus seems to act as a healer who makes recourse to
‘magical’ means (he gives him Melanippus’ brain), though later sources interpret it 30
as an intentioned action to cause Hera’s anger (so Ps.-Apollodorus).
103 Fr. 25.37 ὅς ῥ’ ἀγαθὸς μὲν ἔην ἀγορῆι, ἀγαθὸς δὲ μάχεσθαι.
104 See below on the Aeschylean mention in Seven.
105 Ol. 6.13: ἀμφότερον μάντιν τ’ἀγαθὸν καὶ δουρὶ μάχεσθαι.
106 Fr. 10 Bernabé.
107 SEG 16.193(b), ca. 370 BCE. The final word is damaged; the alternatives suggested 35
are μα[χητήν] (Oikonomides) and μά[χεσθαι (Papademetrios).
108 Suárez (1989).
109 Nem. 9.13–15. The ode commemorates a victory in the Sicyonian games.
110 I refer to the commentary of Gentili/Brenardini/Cingano/Giannini (1995) 576 f.
111 And see line 593, βαθεῖαν ἄλοκα διὰ φρενὸς καρπούμενος. A synthesis of the
theme of the sophrosyne and the meaning of the ‘empty shield’ is found in Euripides’
Suppliants 1111:
ὁ μάντις Ἀμφιάραος, οὐ σημεῖα’ ἔχων
ὑβρισμέν’, ἀλλὰ σωφρόνως ἄσημ’ ὅπλα.
The Portrait of a Seer 667

profile: he is the “right man among the wrong ones”, a dikaios surrounded by
impious men (597 f.). And I think that it is justified to adduce as a comple-
mentary text (among many others possible) the dialogue between Teiresias
and Oedipus 112 in Sophocles’ Antigone, in order to gain a concise profile of
5 the seer and his role among the Athenians. Teiresias’ main argument is that
the polis has enjoyed good times as far as Oedipus has followed his (Teire-
sias’) advice; his speech emphasizes (a) the importance of observing the
behaviour of birds and (b) the value of sacrifices and of the examination of
the victims during the rite, in order to appreciate adequately the signs sent by
10 gods: both (Amphiaraus and Teiresias) synthesize the art and function of the
seer in the service of the polis, such as they were perceived by the citizens.
We could say that Amphiaraus becomes a paradigmatic seer in the 5th
century. The legend of his prodigious disappearance (and reappearance as
a god) had established the basis for adding to his powers another traditional
15 aspect of the Melampodidae: the power of healing. It is not easy to precise
the exact moment when Amphiaraus’ incubatory cult has begun or where
the primitive sanctuary was 113. The existence of a Theban sanctuary has been
not fully confirmed, though it cannot be discarded, and a Theban origin of
the cult would not be out of place 114. Anyway, a particular aspect of this
20 cult is that the incubatory sanctuary in historical times was at Oropus, in the
limits between Boeotia and Attica, and that it has acquired an important po-
litical dimension, as is generally accepted 115, most especially between the 4th
and 1st centuries BCE. Among the sources that give us information about
this worship, I will centre my attention on the description of Pausanias 116,
25 because it contains a valuable reflexion on the seers’ typology.
After mentioning Oropus as a border town (belonging at that time to the
Athenians) and having discussed the reliability of the version of the disap-
pearance of the harma in that place, Pausanias affirms that the Oropians were
the first to deem Amphiaraus a god, followed then by the rest of the Greeks.
30 He gives a catalogue of other ‘deified’ heroes and describes the temple, the
statue and the altar. The latter is divided in five parts, each one showing a
different list of names 117. After some information concerning the place and

112 Soph. Ant. 988 ff.

35 113 Cf. a good discussion in Schachter (1981) 19–26; but see now a reconsideration of
data in Terranova (2008).
114 A possible location has been postulated by Terranova (2008).
115 See the chapter “Le territoire et la frontière” in Sineux (2007) 91–117 and Terranova
116 Paus. 1.34.
117 1. Heracles, Zeus, and Paean Apollo; 2. Dedicated to heroes and heroines; 3. Hestia,
Hermes, Amphiaraos and Amphilochus (because Alcmaeon is excluded and has no
timé, for having killed his mother); 4. Aphrodite and Panakeia, Iaso, Health, Athena
Paeonia; 5. Nymphs and Pan, the rivers Achelous and Cephisus.
668 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

other matters 118, he cites Iophon of Cnossus 119, one of the exegetai, who pre-
served a collection of oracles allegedly uttered by Amphiaraus to the army
sent against Thebes. This is the well known passage where he explains the
nature of the incubatory process (a parallel to the cult of Asclepius), but he
previously makes an assertion that includes a curious description of the dif- 5
ferent mantic practices. He says that, with the exception of those seers who
have experienced the mania sent by Apollo, in ancient times there was no
chresmologos: they were experts in dreams’ interpretation, in the observation
of birds’ flight and of animals’ entrails. Amphiaraus was especially endowed
for the first one. We see in this text, that he considers chresmologues as a 10
‘recent’ phenomenon, what leads us to the next section.

3.  Soul, words and writing: oracles,

‘chresmologues’ and new ‘prodigious’ men 15

The history of divination in ancient Greece experiments two important in-

novations in its methods in the archaic period (between the 7th and 6th cen-
turies grosso modo): the inspection of entrails and what is traditionally labelled
as spirit possession or mantic trance. An ‘oriental’ origin 120 has been usually 20
postulated for both modalities. This is true, but it must be stressed that this
strong innovative stream coming from Orient has found a very fertile soil
in Greece. First, because Greeks have never neglected the rightness of the
different steps and details in every sacrifice or similar operation, and were
very attentive to any alteration (of whatever nature, including the victims) of 25
the process; and second, because, as we have seen, there is no shortage of
seers’ descriptions in which a special attitude from the part of the seer was
required. On the other side, regarding the nature of ‘spirit possession’, it is
necessary to underline that this is a wide-ranging concept, used to qualify
very different situations: from the concentrated attitude of a singer to the 30
orgiastic frenzy of a maenad 121. We have observed also that a strict division
between natural and artificial or technical divination is not possible, and that
they are but the two sides of the same practice. Nonetheless the most deli-
cate question is whether the adoption of a new type of seer craft is linked to

118 For instance: Near the temple is a spring, called “of Amphiaraus”, whose waters
are never used neither for sacrifices, nor purifications nor washing hands. Or: If
you are finally healed, after having followed the indications of the manteuma (i. e.
dream), you must throw a piece of silver and gold inside.
119 He is not known by any other source.
120 See again the references of n. 62.
121 Plato (Phaidr. 244a–245a) gives a well-known classification, which implies the con-
science of a multifaceted mania. On the possession of the Pythia see Maurizio (1995).
The Portrait of a Seer 669

a new concept of the soul or it is due to other reasons (or even both at the
same time). As we will see, an important consequence of the new situation
is the birth of new mythical paradigms, endowed with religious authority 122,
which will support the new trends of this period, in which a new consider-
5 ation of the nature of the soul has been introduced.
Another very important innovation, basic for the understanding of the
new situation in the archaic period, is the spreading of writing and the
increasing of its use in religious matters 123, what leads us to the rising of
written oracles and chresmology sensu stricto  124. This is a fascinating theme,
10 involving some important cultural innovations in the Greek world and – in
the strict case of divination – with ramifications in two important domains:
(a) the relation of oracular centres to oral poetic composition and, second-
arily, to its written diffusion; (b) the spread of alternative prophetic types,
like Sibyls and the mythical chresmologues.
15 I will focus now on the latter item 125. We must differentiate between the
Sibyls as prophetesses of oriental origin and the sibylline oracle as circulat-
ing utterance attributed to them 126. The ancient forebears of the Sibyls in
Mesopotamia are well known and offer an interesting paradigm of ecstatic

20 122 A curious example of fusion of many layers in Delphic mythology is provided by

Diodorus 4.66.4.–4.67.1: Teiresias’ daughter Manto is captured by the Epigonoi
and brought to Delphi, where she wrote oracles and was called Sibyl.
123 On the use of writing in religion see Henrichs (2003). On oracles and writing see
the important chapter on ἱεροὶ χρησμοί in Baumgarten (1998) 15–69. I will not
develop here the problem of the ‘authenticity’ (from our point of view, of course)
of the oracles transmitted as ‘Delphic’. See Suárez (1992b, 1994c, 1995, 2004).
124 See a good discussion of this term in Dillery (2007). However, though sometimes
this term is interchangeable with ‘diviner’ or ‘seer’, I am now referring to the proper
(etymological) use of the word. On mantic, and especially ‘chresmology’, in Athe-
nian comedy (which is an important source) see Smith (1989) and Suárez (1998b).
30 125 Where the Pythia came from, is not an easy question to be answered, and the
explanation making recourse to the oriental models, though likely, is difficult to
concretize in its details. Latte (1949) and Dowden (1979/1980) (to cite a couple of
theories) have advanced solutions to the enigma, but not exempt from objections.
See Amandry (1950), Roux (1976), Suárez (2005a). Even more difficult is to de-
termine why Delphi diverges from the rest of oracular Apollinean shrines (not to
35 speak of those of Zeus, like Dodona). See the introductions and commentaries of
Parke (1967, 1985) and Parke/Wormell (1956), as well as Fontenrose (1978, 1988).
Paradoxically, the Ionian sanctuaries do not follow a common model, at least in
late Antiquity, according to Iamblichus (De mysteriis 3.11): the (male) prophet was
inspired by water at Claros, the prophetess of Colophon, after some preliminary
rites, could be alternatively induced to trance either by a club, or by sitting on an
axon or putting her feet into sacred water and damping the clothes’ edge in it. For
the Pythia, the means of divine inspiration was the θεῖον πνεῦμα.
126 The bibliography on the Sibyls being quite vast, I refer to the studies of Parke (1988)
and the Introduction of Suárez (²2002).
670 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

prophecy diffused through writing 127. There is a common typology very

persistent across times, since the 2nd millennium BCE to the Alexandrian
period 128. In fact, the most ancient sibylline centres are placed in the Eastern
regions of Greece. However, there is a difficulty concerning the spread of
this mantic type into Greece. We have a gap between the first indications of 5
oracular-sibylline language and the spreading of the first oracles attributed
to the Sibyls 129. And a second gap between the initial circulation of Sibyl-
line oracles and the historical localization of real Sibyls. In other words, as
I have previously sustained, the circulation of Sibylline oracles is older than
the appearance of concrete Sibyls in precise locations in the Greek world. 10
The sibylline prophecy is alternatively defined as vaticinium ex eventu, but
this is not in any case the viewpoint of the anonymous composer. The aim
of these prophecies is to circulate oracles allegedly uttered in immemorial
times and usually announcing a catastrophic event. Thus described, it is an
old type in Greek poetry. The fall of Troy is twice remembered in the Iliad 15
in a clear sibylline style 130. Moreover, in Hesiodic poetry we can find old
prophecies, of unknown origin, announcing violent changes in the dynastic
succession of the gods, unless some reaction comes from the addressee of
the prophecy 131. All that does not prove necessarily the existence of old sib-
ylline prophecies familiar to the epic poets, but at least points to a possible 20
early crystallization of a ‘sibylline style’ and to the existence of anonymous
‘oracle-mongers’ taking advantage of the epic hexameter and language for
their interests.
This leads us to the problem of the appearance of the Sibyl. The only
uncontested evidence of it in Greek culture remains Heraclitus, cited by 25
Plut­arch 132, and his impressive description of a Sibyl 133. The date would be ca.
500 BCE. The other possible indication of an even earlier date, a fragment
assigned to Eumelus’ Korinthiaka by Barigazzi 134, which would be a proph-
ecy uttered by the own Sibyl with reference to the origin of the Isthmian

127 On the origin and spreading of the Sibyl(s) see Suárez (1994, 2001) and Roessli
(2004). I have studied in detail the evolution of the Sibyl and sibylline literature in
Suárez (²2002) 331–444.
128 I mean from the civilization of Mari to Alexander the Great.
129 I am using the plural intentionally; but see Suárez (1994, 2001). 35
130 Il. 4.164 f. (Agamemnon to Menelaus) and 6.448 f. (Hector to Andromache):
ἔσσεται ἦμαρ ὅτ’ ἄν ποτ’ ὀλώλῃ ῎Ιλιος ἱρή
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς ἐϋμμελίω Πριάμοιο.
131 See theog. 5. I have discussed the possible connection with oriental models of these
passages and others including the formula βασιληΐδα τιμήν in Suárez (2000a).
132 Heracl. fr. 92 Diels/Kranz, 75 Markovich (Plut. de Pyth. orac. 397 a–b).
133 See Suárez (1994b, 2001, 2007a 62–67).
134 Barigazzi (1966a), cf. Barigazzi (1966b) 321–325. The fragment has been analyzed
in detail in Suárez (1994) 195–197. See also Tortorelli-Ghidini (1998) 249–261.
The Portrait of a Seer 671

games, is problematic, and his authenticity has been disputed 135. However,

even if composed in a later date, this text might bear witness of an ancient
local sibylline tradition 136. And this is no insignificant possibility, taking into
­account the importance of the Corinthians (and more precisely the Bacchiad
5 family) together with the Euboeans, for the Italian colonization. Moreover,
the story of this colonization has no shortage of contacts with centres that
were decisive in the introduction of the sibylline tradition in Italy. But this
could lead us too far 137.
Beyond the concrete problems detected, we can suggest with great prob-
10 ability that in the 6th century BCE, as much the Sibyl as a ‘sibylline’ type of
oracle was well known in Greece. At the same time, the Delphic oracle, the
activity of which can be traced back to the 8th century, had reached a (more
or less) fixed typology in its responses, which were circulating and being
jealously conserved in the archives of the towns 138. It was a time apt for a
15 new modality of prophecy: chresmolog y. Despite the use of χρησμολόγος as
synonym for seer, there can be no doubt that the use of the word is linked
either to the composition of oracular texts or to its collection 139. It is a word-
compound bond to the birth of a new perspective in the use of divination,
aimed at widening its scope and influence. This new situation will remap
20 the panoramic of seer craft, and will multiply the appearance of new types
of seers, in which divination is a tool for broadcasting their powers or a
complementary capacity of their complex personality. Therefore, we will
find the term applied to professional seers familiarized with oracular texts 140
and, at the same time, a new kind of paradigmatic seer (or similar) will ap-
25 pear, through the invention of legendary oracles, whom a whole collection
is assigned to. Bakis illustrates this type perfectly well. He is little more than
a ‘name’, assigned to a male counterpart of the Sibyl. In fact, it could be
said that he is merely an ‘empty’ pseudo-mythical figure, created to support
the authority of invented oracular collections, and who appears for the first

135 Parke (1988) 118 f. and Amato (2002) postulate a late date for the fragment (4th
century BCE or even later).
136 See also the synchronism made by Saint Jerome-Hieronym. 2.83 Schöne: cf. T 5 Ber­
nabé refers to the partial coincidence with Eus. Chronic. Ol. 9 (2.80 Schöne, vers. arm.).
35 137 I refer again to my Introduction in Suárez (²2002) with details.
138 The testimony of Theognis (805–810 West) is decisive. The importance of Delphi
and its oracle in Classical Athens has been recently studied by Giuliani (2002) and
Bowden (2005). See also Suárez (1998a).
139 By the way: When Iamblichus describes the different instruments of mantic in-
spiration at Delphi, Colophon and Claros, he uses the name χρησμῳδός for Colo-
phonian priest and the prophetess of the Branchid sanctuary, whereas the Pythia is
called a προφῆτις.
140 For instance, Onomacritus is rather known as ‘oracle-monger’ (Shapiro 1990) than
as a proper seer (see D’Agostino 2007).
672 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

time in the 7th century and reappears in the 6th century in the context of
Theban and Messenian history 141.
Nonetheless, they are not always ‘seers’ in the pure sense of the word.
Sometimes they are linked to emergent religious streams, and the attribu-
tion to them of oracle-collections is merely an expedient to confer author- 5
ity to those texts. This is what happens with Orpheus or Musaeus, though
they are different in some aspects. Orpheus 142 is in the core of a very im-
portant religious movement to which he gives his name: he is the mythical
founder of this stream, whereas Musaeus is linked to a variety of religious
(and especially Athenian 143) traditions, Orphism included, as a propagator 10
of those ideas and practices. But what is now important for my argument
is the attribution to them of oracle collections that circulated freely and,
despite the efforts made by the political authorities to control them, were
easily ‘falsified’ 144. The shared trait is that both configure a new ‘paradigmatic’
category, partially equivalent to that of the old seers. Significant genealogies 15
are created for them and they are considered authors of Theogonies, Cos-
mogonies, and other forms of religious poetry. They form a class of reli-
gious authorities with poetical qualities as well as portentous powers. Their
prophetical qualities are diffused with the instrument of the written oracle:
writing is now a powerful tool, and the possession of these texts reinforces 20
other types of authority 145.
This model has had a great success, and the mantic or oracular power
was attributed to other exceptional individuals, characterized by some pe-
culiarities related to a new conception on the soul. This combination of
religious authority, mantic powers and (another ‘nouveauté’ ) a capacity of 25
separating their souls from their bodies gives the common profile to Epi-
menides, Aristeas, Abaris or Hermotimus. The question of the appearance
of the concept of the ‘free soul’ in Greece has been sufficiently discussed,
usually linked to the problem of the influence of ‘shamanistic’ concepts 146
and is out of place at this moment. But it is important to underline that 30
from the 6th century on, the attribution of mantic, cathartic, medical, and
related qualities to the same person is a well attested trend in Greek culture
that invades also the field of philosophy and configures the particular ‘bi-

141 More data and bibliography can be found in Suárez (2005). 35

142 On the evolution of this mythical figure see Graf (²1988).
143 See the ‘appropriation’ of Musaeus by Eumolpidae and Lycomidae. On the char-
acteristics of Athenian ‘orphism’, see Graf (1974).
144 Or perhaps it would be better to say ‘modified’: all of them where a ‘fake’ in a radi-
cal sense.
145 See Suárez (2005) for more details.
146 This fascinating theme has deserved decisive studies since the 18th century: see, with
very different approaches, Rohde (1897), Dodds (1951), Burkert (1962), Dowden
(1979/1980), Bremmer (1983) or Johnston (1999), among others.
The Portrait of a Seer 673

ographies’ of Empedocles, Pythagoras and so on, and will be a recurrent

feature of the Greek culture in later times.

5 4.  Conclusions
Since the first literary testimonies, we find in Greek culture a strong tendency
to create paradigmatic seers, who impersonate the best professional qualities
and are representative of a very respectable type of religious expert. In other
10 words: there is a need of emphasizing the highest level of social acceptance
and of personal and religious authority. This profile might reflect a will of
counterbalancing the well attested negative image of the seer in different
historical moments and milieux.
The main features of the paradigmatic seer evolve across time, fitting
15 the different conceptions regarding the practice of seer craft, the religious
and philosophical developments, and the changing social and cultural cir-
cumstances. Calchas plays a special role; he is quite representative of the
functions of a seer. His portrait is a very impressive one, and establishes a
paradigm which will last across centuries for many reasons: possibility of
20 understanding the willing of the gods (thanks to his special nous), capacity
of interpreting signs adequately, and display of religious authority. Helenus
shows also a capacity of understanding (even ‘hearing’) the gods’ will, this
time perceived in his thymós. The description of other seers is quite notewor-
thy too. Some of them experience the impossibility of escaping one’s fate
25 or they foretell their sons’ death. From Iliad to Odyssey, and despite the lesser
frequency of diviners in the latter, we have detected some significant innova-
tions. There is a varied typology: the local diviner (Halitherses), skilled in the
interpretation of signs; the diviner acting as mediator with the underworld
and the dead and predicting the hero’s death (Teiresias); and the itinerant di-
30 viner, member of a seers’ family (Theoclymenus). On the other side, regard-
ing the techniques of divination, the interpretation of external signs, such as
birds’ flight, dreams or other (more isolated) omens, predominates. It lacks
the examination of entrails. However, we have observed that omens can ap-
pear during a sacrifice and alter it. In both poems people know the existence
35 of palaiphata thesphata susceptible of accomplishment at a given moment.
Generally speaking we could say that prophecies oscillate between interpre-
tations of omens with reference to the present, announcements of forth-
coming episodes in a person’s life, and evocation of old forgotten prophe-
cies. So, all temporal dimensions are displayed: past, present and future.
40 The Odyssey shows that some stories sung by poets about famous seers
have begun to be spread, what is confirmed by the rest of the epic poems
(Epic Cycle, ps.-Hesiodic poetry). The change is an important one. Seers
are not only included as characters in a poem, with a more or less decisive
674 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

role in its plot, but they become the subject of whole songs. This change
marks the appearance of a new mode of reinforcing seers’ authority: the
inclusion in a ‘mythical’ genealog y. This is an important innovation, parallel to
the consolidation of heroic genealogies. The stories protagonized by these
seers include features belonging to different chronological layers, aiming at 5
the consolidation of a definite profile of the seer. Descriptions confirm the
portentous powers they have, ranging from the understanding of animals’
language to the possibility of resurrecting people, and including the over-
coming of difficult tests. If we sum up the ‘biographies’ of Melampous,
Polyidus and Amphiaraus, the portrait is that of a warrior (and member of 10
a royal family), diviner (with manifold skills) and healer, placed under the
protection of Apollo. This multifaceted paradigm will function as a “general
structure”, from which particular elements can be selected at a given mo-
ment and adapted to concrete circumstances.
The next step in the evolution of paradigmatic seer craft is linked to two 15
innovations, the first concerning the concept of the soul, the second the use
and expansion of writing in religious matters (coinciding with the emergence
of new religious trends). Spirit possession, free soul, and other usual descrip-
tions of the seer’s state at the moment of foretelling or prophesying will be
attributed to some of the new representatives of the mantic practice. At the 20
same time, and linked to the precedent fact, the spread of written oracles
will contribute to frame a particular paradigm of seer, who authenticates the
circulating texts. We have then a (new) threefold paradigmatic typology: the
‘Sybil-Bakis type’, the ‘Musaeus type’ and the ‘Aristeas type’. Despite the ef-
forts to link all them to the sphere of Apollo, they constitute sometimes a 25
kind of alternative oracular model, competing with the oracular shrines.
All the described paradigms exclude not themselves mutually. And they
coexist with a real, professional and independent practice of divination that
sometimes tries to mirror those models, or at least makes use of them to re-
inforce authority and to counterbalance the scepticism or even the contempt 30
of the people. Finally, in the Hellenistic and, especially, Imperial periods we
will find a re-enactment of the old paradigms, adapted to a new kind of
religiosity, but with their roots in the ancient models. Apollonius of Tyana
or Alexander of Abonoutichus are but two sides of the same phenomenon.
But this is another story 147. 35

147 As an introduction to theses new models I refer to Sfameni Gasparro (2000), with
a splendid bibliography. Finally, I want to mention a particular oracular model:
­Trophonius. He is not ‘particular’ for the oracular activity, but both for the absence
of elements in his ‘biography’ anticipating the activity post mortem and for some traits
of the ritual, rich in mystical and initiatory features. But Trophonius has been the
subject of decisive research by Pierre Bonnechere (2003 and numerous articles) to
which I refer the reader.
The Portrait of a Seer 675

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676 Emilio Suárez de la Torre

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Flower (2008b). – Michael Attyah Flower, “The Iamidae. A Mantic Family and its Public
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rita 43 (1975) 107–132.
The Portrait of a Seer 677

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arcaica e classica, Vita e Pensiero (Milano 2001).
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