Crystal Addey’s edited volume Divination and Knowledge in Greco-Roman Antiquity offers ten chapters showcasing the role divination played in ancient life. This book “aims . . . to reveal the inextricable connections between ancient divination and knowledge, and thus the centrality of divination in the epistemology of ancient Greek and Roman cultures” (2). Drawing connections between varying modalities of Greco-Roman knowledge such as philosophy and science, each chapter situates divination within a wider system. This wider system illuminates how divination was used in the mundane, daily lives of ancient individuals to make actual decisions. This is a book that demonstrates the complexity of divination even for the people who practiced it and calls for the modern reader to proceed cautiously lest one’s own post-Enlightenment thinking constructs a flawed understanding of divination and practicality.
War is one context where divination played an important role. Ralph Anderson, author of the book’s third chapter entitled “‘Work with the god”’: military divination and rational battle-planning in Xenophon,” argues that “the needs of a commander preparing for battle is a product of our own misconceptions . . . about divination (84).” Divination and the assurance of favorable outcomes, according to Anderson, integrates largely with daily affairs and does not merely serve spiritual gain (87). Citing Xenophon’s On theCavalry Commander, Anderson successfully illustrates this point. In this text, Xenophon addresses the expectation that the good military commander should not only fulfill the basic needs of his soldiers, but the commander’s men should hold confidence that he would not lead them “without the gods (ἄνευ θεῶν) or contrary to the sacrificial omens (89).” Anderson’s contribution offers one of the book’s most sound examples of divination crossing into mundane territory in its practical assistance for wartime decision making.
A subject like divination invites overlap between subjects, and the reader does witness parallel, yet differing, relations between contributions in the book. However, this does not deter the book from fulfilling its mission to explore the complicated dynamic between human reason and divination. Rather, the book finds a strength in the scholarly parallels. Xenophon’s writings again bear witness to the interrelationship of divinatory practice and human logic in the fifth chapter written by Addey herself. In “Divination and the Kairos in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Culture,” the editor surveys the connection between divination and the concept of the kairos. The kairos, which suggests “optimal timing and timeliness” to “mark a moment of connection with the eternal and divine” (149) proved pivotal to the success of an endeavor, and divination techniques aided the seeker in discovering if a particular moment in time was indeed the time to act. Like Anderson, Addey cites Xenophon but draws from his Anabasis to reinforce the kairos and its importance. While on a military mission, divinatory sacrifices were made to determine the opportune moment for a party to gather necessities or to reveal whether the men should depart. Despite days of disparaging omens, a group set out only to fall under attack and suffer tremendous loss. Only after Xenophon’s sacrifice to send a rescue mission resulted in favorable omens did the misfortune end.
Overlapping subjects between multiple authors composes much of this monograph’s content. As mentioned, this approach does not detract from the book’s ability to delve deeper into the facets of ancient divination. Rather, this gives agency in the text and allows for active cross-comparisons of multiple viewpoints. Another example of such an occurrence begins with Julia Kindt in chapter 1. Entitled “The Enigmatic Divine Voice and the Problem of Human Misinterpretation” Kindt broadly examines “the kind of religious communication the Greeks associated with Delphi” (30) with a focus on the vague language associated with the oracle.
Meanwhile, Elsa Giovanna Simonetti’s draws from Plutarch in her contribution, “The Pythia as matter: Plutarch’s scientific account of divination.” Simonetti casts the Pythia in alignment with Plutarch’s ideas regarding cosmology and the ordering factors of earthly phenomena. Guilia Pedrucci continues this trend in chapter 7, “Divination and female sexuality: the transformation of the Greek Pythia by the Church Fathers.” Pedrucci’s account concerning the Pythia’s identity adds to the prior two perspectives in its chronologically expanded scope and its step beyond the bounds of traditional Greco-Roman polytheistic culture. With the arrival of Christianity, Pedrucci argues that the Fathers “sexualized and distorted (194)” the Pythia with one probable mode of transformation occurring with the Christian mergence of “Plato’s descriptions of the Bacchantes with the Pythia (197).” All in all, Christians sought to discredit Greco-Roman custom via discreditation of the Pythia. The aforementioned chapters each explore divination through the Pythia and her identity. This not only invites critical examination, but this repetition exemplifies the complexity of divination as a whole.
The book’s editor, its chosen contributors, and the sources each scholar integrates into their individual works all succeed in reaffirming the close connection between knowledge and divination. This ultimately returns to a final evaluation of the book’s central thesis, which sought to place divination back in line with Greco-Roman epistemology. The repetition of topics related to divination superbly attests that one perspective cannot grant a wholly encompassing image of how the ancients understood divinatory practices. Rather, divination holds personal meaning to those who practiced it, and modern scholarship is only breaking through the surface of its complexity.
Sarah S. Eckert is a doctoral candidate in the history of early Christianity at Claremont Graduate University.
Date Of Review:
March 27, 2023
Crystal Addey is a Lecturer in Classics at University College Cork, Ireland, and a Tutor for the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, UK. She is the author of Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods (Routledge 2014).
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