By Pat Lowinger
I rarely find myself laughing out loud while conducting academic research. This article reflects one of those rare occasions. I would like to thank Sarah Iles Johnston PhD for her insightful examination of ancient Greek divination in Ancient Greek Divination, 3rd edition (2008).
Among the ancient Greeks, various modes of divination were discussed by numerous historical sources, such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Iamblichus, Posidonius, Chrysippus, Melampus and many others. The modes, as well as prophetic authority of divination, varied greatly throughout the Greek world. There were those who practiced the ‘reading’ of flames- a method known as pyromancy (with several sub-categories). Others, listened to/channeled daimones contained within their bellies (engastroimuthoi) and/or the ‘art’ of astragalomancy which relied on the casting of bone-dice (most often sheep’s knuckles). Some diviners were wanderers, others were associated with a particular town or city, while others were associated with sacred locations. Some institutions of Greek divination were widely revered throughout the ancient Mediterranean, such as the oracles of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma.
Prior to reading Johnston’s book, I was familiar with the major aspects of divination in the Greek and Roman religious traditions. It was during her analysis of palomancy (body twitches and spasms) that she referred to the following verses of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which I just had to read for myself:
So said Phoebus Apollo, and took the child and began to carry him. But at that moment the strong Slayer of Argus had his plan, and, while Apollo held him [Hermes] in his hands, sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf [flatulence], a rude messenger, and sneezed directly after. And when Apollo heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands on the ground: then sitting down before him, though he was eager to go on his way, he spoke mockingly to Hermes: “Fear not, little swaddling baby, son of Zeus and Maia. I shall find the strong cattle presently by these omens, and you shall lead the way.” -Hymn to Hermes IV, 293-303. Emphasis added.
A fart and a sneeze- the former being called ‘a rude messenger’ of the gods. It appears that not even the author of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes wasn’t without a sense of humor. On the other hand, this might have been only one of many forms of divination practiced by the ancient Greeks and might go a long way to explain Herodotus’ observations as to why ancient Egyptian priests avoided the eating of beans… to actively avoid unwanted divination?
I hope you have enjoyed this rather lighthearted examination of ancient divination.
Recommended Reading and References:
Johnston, Sarah. Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
Homeric Hymn to Hermes. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=HH%204