You are here


A diverse range of written evidence from Homer through to the dream manual of Artemidoros in the second century AD secures many vital facts for interpreting the ancient Greek experience of omens and oracles. Yet other texts and discourses present themselves in a variety of non-literary media. Lizards provide specifically ill omens for Amphiaraos on a Corinthian volute krater of 575 BC (once Berlin F1655: verschollen). As he steps into his chariot to go off to battle, from which he will not return alive, an array of creatures including a lizard are shown. These surely are not simply background studies, nor are they the simple humour of the artist (surely not appropriate for a tragic theme?). Rather, they signal to the viewer that this is the last time the hero will climb into his chariot. That is, while the scene is often discussed, its divinatory significance needs to be read. It serves to indicate the dangers of decontextualised iconographic study in which a vase is viewed in isolation simply for its aesthetic appeal or mythological value. Reading brassards and vases as divinatory texts yields a new type of hitherto neglected divination: the lizard has an ominous quality.

Numerous depictions of birds in the iconographic record are often dismissed as decorative parts of the scenic landscape. But on the panel of a terracotta sarcaphogus from Clazomenai (Tübingen S/12.2862), an eagle flies right to left over a group of hoplites fighting a battle: it very much looks as if they will carry the day. One hoplite turns his head, while still moving forward, to look at the bird; his seeing it is an acceptance of the good omen it represents. Are all such examples of eagles space-fillers rather than omens? No, rather these depictions extend knowledge of Greek divination and suggest a much wider military context for aerial portents.

Iconographic evidence not only adds considerably to an understanding of Greek divination, but also hitherto neglected non-literary sources which have not been associated with Greek divination can be put into their correct context, allowing for a profound shift in emphasis in our understanding of the types of divination which the Greeks considered crucial.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy