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p415 Divinatio

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp415‑418 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

DIVINATIO is, according to Cicero (De Divinat. I.1), a presension and a knowledge of future things; or, according to Chrysippus (Cic. De Divinat. II.63), a power in man which foresees and explains those signs which the gods throw in his way, and the diviner must therefore know the disposition of the gods towards men, the import of their signs, and by what means these signs are to be obtained. According to this latter definition, the meaning of the Latin word divinatio is narrower than that of the Greek μαντική, in as much as the latter signifies any means by which the decrees of the gods can be discovered, the natural as well as the artificial; that is to say, the seers and the oracles, where the will of the gods is revealed by inspiration, as well as the divinatio in the sense of Chrysippus. In the one, man is the passive medium through which the deity reveals the future; while in the other, man discovers it by his own skill or experience, without any pretension to inspiration. As, however, the seer or vates was also frequently called divinus, we shall treat, under this head, of seers as well as of other p416kinds of divinatio. The subject of oracles is discussed in a separate article. [Oraculum.]

The belief that the decrees of the divine will were occasionally revealed by the deity himself, or could be discovered by certain individuals, is one which the classical nations of antiquity had, in common with many other nations, before the attainment of a certain degree of intellectual cultivation. In early ages such a belief was natural, and perhaps founded on the feeling of a very close connection between man, God, and nature. But in the course of time, when men became more acquainted with the laws of nature, this belief was abandoned, at least by the more enlightened minds, while the multitudes still continued to adhere to it; and the governments, seeing the advantages to be derived from it, not only countenanced, but encouraged and supported it.

The seers or μάντεις, who, under the direct influence of the gods, chiefly that of Apollo, announced the future, seen originally to have been connected with certain places where oracles were given; but in subsequent times they formed a distinct class of persons, independent of any locality; one of them is Calchas in the Homeric poems. Apollo, the god of prophecy, was generally the source from which the seers, as well as other diviners, derived their knowledge. In many families of seers the inspired knowledge of the future was considered to be hereditary, and to be transmitted from father to son. To these families belonged the Iamids (Paus. III.11 §5, &c.; Böckh, ad Pind. Ol. VI. p152), who from Olympia spread over a considerable part of Greece; the Branchidae, near Miletus (Conon, 33); the Eumolpids, at Athens and Eleusis; the Clytiads (Paus. VI.17 §4), the Telliads (Herod. VIII.27; Paus. X.1 §4, &c.; Herod. IX.37), the Acarnanian seers, and others. Some of these families retained their celebrity till a very late period of Grecian history. The manteis made their revelations when required to do so on important emergencies, or they made them spontaneously whenever they thought it necessary, either to prevent some calamity or to stimulate their countrymen to something beneficial. The civil government of Athens not only tolerated, but protected and honoured them; and Cicero (De Divinat. I.43) says, that the manteis were present in all the public assemblies of the Athenians (Compare Aristoph. Pax, 1025, with the Schol.; Nub. 325, &c. and the Schol.; Lycurg. c. Leocrat. p196). Along with the seers we may also mention the Bacides and the Sibyllae. Both existed from a very remote time, and were distinct from the manteis so far as they pretended to derive their knowledge of the future from sacred books (χρησμοί) which they consulted, and which were in some places, as at Athens and Rome, kept by the government or some especial officers, in the acropolis and in the most revered sanctuary. Bacis was, according to Pausanias (X.12 §6; compare with IV.27 §2), in Boeotia a general name for a man inspired by nymphs. The Scholiast on Aristophanes (Pax, 1009) and Aelian (V.H. XII.35) mention three original Bacides, one of Eleon in Boeotia, a second of Athens, and a third of Caphys in Arcadia (compare Aristoph. Equit. 123, 998, Aves, 963; Clem. Alex. Strom. I.398). From these three Bacides all others were said to be descended, and to have derived their name. Antichares (Herod. V.43), Musaeus (Herod. VII.6), Euclous of Cyprus (Paus. X.12 §6), and Lycus, son of Pandion (Paus. l.c.), probably belonged to the Bacides. The Sibyllae were prophetic women, probably of Asiatic origin, whose peculiar custom seems to have been to wander with their sacred books from place to place (Liv. I.7). Aelian (V.H. XII.35) states that, according to some authors, there were four Sibyllae, — the Erythraean, the Samian, the Egyptian, and the Sardinian; but that others added six more, among whom there was one called the Cumaean, and another called the Jewish Sibylla. Compare Suidas (s.v. Σίβυλλαι), and Pausanias (X.12), who has devoted a whole chapter to the Sibyllae, in which, however, he does not clearly distinguish between the Sibyllae properly so called, and other women who travelled about and made the prophetic art their profession, and who seem to have been very numerous in all parts of the ancient world (Clem. Alex. Strom. I.319). The Sibylla whose books gained so great an importance at Rome, was, according to Varro (ap. Lactant. I.6), the Erythraean: the books which she was said to have sold to one of the Tarquins, were carefully concealed from the public, and only accessible to the duumvirs. The early existence of the Sibyllae is not as certain as that of the Bacides; but in some legends of a late date, they occur even in the period previous to the Trojan war, and it is not improbable that at an early period every town in Greece had its prophecies by some Bacis or Sibylla (Paus, l.c.). They seem to have retained their celebrity down to the time of Antiochus and Demetrius. (See Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, I. p503, &c.).

Besides these more respectable prophets and prophetesses, there were numbers of diviners of an inferior order (χρησμολόγοι), who made it their business to explain all sorts of signs, and to tell fortunes. They were, however, more particularly popular with the lower orders, who are everywhere most ready to believe what is most marvellous and least entitled to belief. This class of diviners, however, does not seem to have existed until a comparatively late period (Thucyd. II.21; Aristoph. Aves, 897, Pax, 986, 1034, &c.), and to have been looked upon, even by the Greeks themselves, as nuisances to the public.

These soothsayers lead us naturally to the mode of divination, of which such frequent use was made by the ancients in all the affairs of the public and private life, and which chiefly consisted in the interpretation of numberless signs and phenomena. No public undertaking of any consequence was ever entered upon by the Greeks and Romans without consulting the will of the gods, by observing the signs which they sent, especially those in the sacrifices offered for the purpose, and by which they were thought to indicate the success or the failure of the undertaking. For this kind of divination no divine inspiration was thought necessary, but merely experience and a certain knowledge acquired by routine; and although in some cases priests were appointed for the purpose of observing and explaining signs [Augur, Haruspex], yet on any sudden emergency, especially in private affairs, any one who met with something extraordinary, might act as his own interpreter. The principal signs by which the gods were thought to declare their will, were things connected with the offering of sacrifices, the flight and voice of birds, p417all kinds of natural phenomena, ordinary as well as extraordinary, and dreams.

The interpretation of signs of the first class (ἱερομαντεία or ἱεροσκοπία, haruspicium or ars haruspicina), was, according to Aeschylus (Prometh. 492, &c.), the invention of Prometheus. It seems to have been most cultivated by the Etruscans, among whom it was raised into a complete science, and from whom it passed to the Romans. Sacrifices were either offered for the special purpose of consulting the gods, or in the ordinary way; but in both cases the signs were observed, and when they were propitious, the sacrifice was said καλλιερεῖν. The principal points that were generally observed were, 1. The manner in which the victim approached to the altar, whether uttering a sound or not; the former was considered a favourable omen in the sacrifice at the Panionium (Strab. VIII. p384: compare Paus. IV.32 §3). 2. The nature of the intestines with respect to their colour and smoothness (Aeschyl. Prometh. 493, &c.; Eurip. Elect. 833); the liver and bile were of particular importance. [Caput Extorum.] 3. The nature of the flame which consumed the sacrifice (see Valckenaer, ad Eurip. Phoen. 1261); hence the words, πυρομαντεία, ἔμπυρα σήματα, φλογωπὰ σήματα. That the smoke rising from the altar, the libation, and various other things offered to the gods, were likewise considered as a means through which the will of the gods might be learned, is clear from the names, καπνομαντεία, λιβανομαντεία, κριθομαντεία, and others. Especial care was also taken during a sacrifice, that no inauspicious or frivolous words were uttered by any of the bystanders: hence the admonitions of the priests, εὐφημεῖτε and εὐφημία, or σιγᾶτε, σιωπᾶτε, favete linguis, and others; for improper expressions were not only thought to pollute and profane the sacred act, but to be unlucky omens (δυσφημία, κλῃδόνες, φήμαι, φωναί or ὀμφαί, Pind. Ol. VI.112; Hom. Il. II.41).

The art of interpreting signs of the second class was called οἰωνιστική, augurium or auspicium. It was, like the former, common to Greeks and Romans, but was never developed into so complete a system by the former as by the latter; nor did it ever attain the same degree of importance in Greece as it did at Rome. [Augur.] The Greeks, when observing the flight of birds, turned their face towards the north, and then a bird appearing to the right (east), especially an eagle, a heron, or a falcon, was a favourable sign (Hom. Il. XIV.274, XXIV.310, Od. XV.524); while birds appearing to the left (west) were considered as unlucky signs (Hom. Il. XII.201, 230; Festus, s.v. Sinistrae Aves.) Sometimes the mere appearance of a bird was thought sufficient: thus the Athenians always considered the appearance of an owl as a lucky sign; hence the proverb, γλαὺξ ἵπταται, "the owl is out," i.e. we have good luck. Other animals appearing unexpectedly, especially to travellers on their road (ἐνόδια σύμβολα), were also thought ominous; and at Athens it was considered a very unlucky omen, when a weasel appeared during the assembly of the people (Aristoph. Eccles. 793). Superstitions of this kind are still met with in several European countries. Various other means were used to ascertain the will of the gods, such as the σιδερομαντεία, or divination by placing straws on red hot iron; the μολυβδομαντεία,º by observing the figures which melted lead formed; the βοτανομαντεία, or divination by writing one's own name on herbs and leaves, which were then exposed to the wind, &c.

Of greater importance than the appearance of animals, at least to the Greeks, were the phenomena in the heavens, particularly during any public transaction. They were not only observed and interpreted by private individuals in their own affairs, but by the public magistrates. The Spartan ephors, as we learn from Plutarch (Agis 11),º made regular observations in the heavens every ninth year during the night; and the family of the Pythaistae, of Athens, made similar observations every year before the theoris set sail for Delos (Müller, Dorians, II.2 §14). Among the unlucky phenomena in the heavens (διοσημεῖα, signa, or portenta) were thunder and lightning (Aristoph. Eccles. 793; Eustath. ad Hom. Od. XX.104), an eclipse of the sun or moon (Thucyd. VII.50), earthquakes (Xen. Hellen. IV.7 §4), rain of blood, stones, milk, &c. (Hom. Il. XI.53, &c.; Cic. De Divinat. I.43). Any one of these signs was sufficient at Athens, as well as at Rome, to break up the assembly of the people (Schömann, De Comit. Ath. p146, &c. transl.). In common life, things apparently of no importance, were thought by the ancients to be signs sent by the gods, from which conclusions might be drawn respecting the future. Among these common occurrences we may mention sneezinga (Hom. Od. XVII.541,º with the note of Eustath.; Xen. Anab. III.2 §9; Plut. Themist. 13; Ovid, Heroid. 19, 151; Propert. II.2.3),º twinkling of the eyes (Theocrit. III.37; Plaut. Pseud. I.2.105; compare Wüstemann, ad Theocrit. l.c.), tinkling of the ears, and numberless other things which we cannot here enumerate. Some of them have retained their significance with the superstitious multitude down to the present day.

The art of interpreting dreams (ὀνειροπολία), which had probably been introduced into Europe from Asia, where it is still a universal practice, seems in the Homeric age to have been held in high esteem; for dreams were said to be sent by Zeus (Hom. Il. I.63, II init., Od. IV.841, XIX.457). In subsequent times, that class of diviners who occupied themselves with the interpretation of dreams, seems to have been very numerous and popular; but they never enjoyed any protection from the state, and were only resorted to by private individuals. Some persons are said to have gained their livelihood by this profession (Plut. Aristid. 27). Respecting the oracles which were obtained by passing a night and dreaming in a temple, see Oraculum.

For further information concerning the art of divination in general, see Cicero's work, De Divinatione. The μαντική of the Greeks is treated of at some length by Wachsmuth (Hellen. Alterth. II.2 p259, &c., vol. II p585, 2d edit.). Compare Thirlwall's Hist. of Greece, I. p206, &c.

The word divinatio was used in a particular manner by the Romans as a law-term, which requires some explanation. If in any case two or more accusers came forward against one and the same individual, it was, as the phrase ran, decided by divinatio, who should be the chief or real accuser, whom the others then joined as subscriptores; i.e. by putting their names to the charge brought against the offender. This transaction, by which one of several accusers was selected to conduct p418the accusation, was called divinatio, as the question here was not about facts, but about something which was to be done, and which could not be found out by witnesses or written documents; so that the judices had, as it were, to divine the course which they had to take (Ascon. in Argum. ad Cic. Divinat. in Caec. p99, ed. Orelli). Hence the oration of Cicero, in which he tries to show that he, and not Q. Caecilius Niger, ought to conduct the accusation against Verres, is called Divinatio in Caecilium. Compare c15 and 20 of the oration, and Gellius, II.4.


Thayer's Note:

a For sternutation or sneezing, and further references in ancient literature, see Book 4, Chapter 9 of Sir Thomas Browne's Vulgar Errors.


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