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Reviewed by:
  • Ancient Greek Divination
  • Stephanie L. Budin
Sarah Iles Johnston. Ancient Greek Divination. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Pp. 193.

Johnston’s book is a fine introduction to the arts of divination in the ancient Greek world. Chronologically the work extends from age of Homer [End Page 229] and Hesiod through Late Antiquity; geographically it focuses on mainland Greece, Anatolia, and Egypt. In spite of its chronological range, the book focuses specifically on Greek divination; late-antique Roman divination is not included save as a comparandum for Greek practice where relevant (p. 27).

The book is organized into five chapters. Chapter One, “Why Divination?” considers ancient and modern philosophical and anthropological approaches to divination in the ancient world. Does divination work? Why does it work? What does it say about the relationship between deities and humans? Is it religion? Is it magic? Are there clear boundaries between these apparently distinct categories? Although Johnston locates divination within the magic-religion paradigm, she does not broach the debate concerning the relationship between magic and religion, or how divination would contribute to that debate. After considering the opinions of ancient authors such as Cicero (On Divination) and Artemidorus (On Divination Through Dreams), Johnston turns to modern theorists, especially considering differences between early and late twentieth-century ideologies.

Chapters Two and Three focus on the main institutional oracles of the ancient Greek world, Chapter Two looking at Delphi and Dodona, Chapter Three considering Claros, Didyma, and other smaller oracles. For Delphi, Johnston presents the history of the site, evidence for how the oracle functioned, and even considers the debate as to whether or not the Pythia was “atmospherically enhanced” during her prophecies (Johnston believes she was). One particularly interesting notion Johnston addresses is the engendered nature of Delphi (pp. 56–60). As noted at the opening of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Delphi once belonged to a range of goddesses before being acquired by Apollo. In this respect Johnston looks at the ongoing role of Themis in the history of Delphi and Greek politics. Chapter Two ends with a survey of the more out-of-the-way oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Of special interest is the archaeological evidence for the use of lead scrolls in oracular divination, and Johnston uses the evidence from Dodona to speculate that a similar technique may have been employed at Delphi.

Chapter Three covers the Anatolian oracles of Apollo at Claros and Didyma, as well as lesser, local oracles such as that of Trophonius at Lebadeia (northern Greece). This chapter is somewhat less coherent than Chapter Two. Johnston diverges from her discussions of the oracles to discuss the (related) concept of the nature of divinity (p. 78 ff., p. 89 ff.). Likewise, she contradicts herself when switching from Claros to Didyma (p. 82). At the end of the Claros section she claims that “by the time Claros rose to greater prominence during the imperial age, it was too late to embroider its foundation story very much. The genealogies, deeds and interactions of the great [End Page 230] mythic heroes were firmly set; the system was nearly closed.” However, she begins her section on Didyma by noting that the myth has its origins in the Hellenistic age, evolving into the imperial age. Nevertheless, Johnston provides a good overview of the archaeology and textual evidence concerning these major Apolline oracles.

Chapter Three ends with a survey of less grandiose, but still quite popular, oracles throughout the Greek world and their respective means of divination. At some sites, such as the sanctuary of Asklepius at Epidaurus, incubation (dream oracles) was the means to a very literal cure. At the shrine of Trophonius, one was literally sucked into the earth feet first. Some mediums used mirrors or talking snakes (as used by the possibly duplicitous Alexander and his talking snake [puppet?] Glycon). Or, for the do-it-yourselfer, there was divination by means of dice.

Chapter Four studies the history and role of the mantis, or personal diviner, in the ancient Greek world. Here Johnston explores the issues of how one became a mantis (were family connections important?), what the manteis did, and what divinatory techniques they used. Covered are the techniques of...


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