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Greek Divination as Personal Religion: The Divining Self as Independent of Polis Religion

Matthew Paul James Dillon

Ancient Greek divination (manteia) is a topic that has recently been generating some scholarly interest (Stoneman, Johnston, Flower). Traditionally, many studies of Greek prophecy focused on polis-centred divination, the needs of the city as a community being met by state embassies being sent to oracular centres (Delphi, Klaros, Didyma), or officials sleeping in dream sanctuaries (Lindos, Lebadeia, Oropos). Manteis (diviners) accompanied armies into battle and chresmologoi singing oracles on occasions such as the public debate concerning sending an Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BC, were commonplaces in Greek poleis. These diviners in such capacities dealt with concerns of the state. Some oracular centres dealt with a range of private and public problems (Dodona, and by Plutarch’s time Delphi), employing the same divinatory mechanisms for both, personal and state. In addition, some types of non-oracular divination were employed by both state and individual, such as ornithomanteia (bird-divination). 

Yet there was a range of divinatory mechanisms which were utilisedonly by individuals for personal reasons. These allowed ‘ordinary’ people to discern what the gods intended for them, creating a personal relationship with the gods. Such relationships could be epiphanic, in the case of the iatromantic cults of Amphiaraos and Asklepios, involving individual deities. Pagan Oionomaos and Christian Clement both disparaged a range of manteia used by individuals for personal divination: divination from flour in particular, while the ‘stomach-talkers’ (engastrimythoi) are ridiculed.1 Yet these provided personal divination for many. Theophrastos’ criticism of deisidaimonia reveals that divination was crucial at an individual’s level for understanding and controlling events in their ordinary lives. He and others might ridicule the omen of the mouse gnawing through a bag containing grain, but ominous events did occur in people’s lives and explanations were sought via manteia.

People had access to methods of divination not employed by the polis. Dice oracles, alphabet oracles, and the sortes Astrympsychi, to give a few examples, gave the individual an unmediated response from the divine, completely separate from the parameters of polis religion. They could apply prophetic interpretations to their own situation, independent of the polis. Dream interpreters were known to Homer, and by the fourth century BC dream manuals were circulating. Individuals could have personal, individualisedmessages, sent to them by the gods, interpreted in order to guide them in decision making. Any polis had a large number of festivals and rites mediating between the community and the gods for public benefits. In ascertaining what to do next and how best to do this, personal divination independent of state temples and cults provided a means for individuals to discern their future, and to influence their destiny, in a mantic framework separate from the polis. The divining self was independent of polis religion.

(1) Oinomaos F7.4 (Eus. Praep. Evan. 5.25); Clem. Protrept.2.11.1-2; cf. Suid. sv propheteia.


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Ancient Greek Personal Religion

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