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The Cultural Imaginary of Manteia: Seercraft, Travel, and Charisma in Ancient Greece

  • Author(s): Foster, Margaret Cecelia
  • Advisor(s): Kurke, Leslie
  • et al.

This dissertation considers four different members of the Melampodid and Iamid clans in order to elucidate Greek cultural fantasies about seers and seercraft. I explore why the seer is cast as a navigator, a military commander, an oikist (founder of a city), and a figure of charismatic authority. Moving beyond viewing seers merely as specialists in divination, I consider the other qualities Greeks attributed to seers and the range of ventures in which Greeks envisioned their seers participating. Each chapter concentrates on a particular seer in order to investigate a discrete facet of the Greek cultural imaginary of manteia (prophetic power).

Chapter 1 examines the relationship between Odysseus and the Melampodid seer Theoklymenos. The seer and the hero operate as a coherent pair within the framework of colonization. The Odyssey casts Odysseus' return home as a re-colonization of Ithaka and Odysseus himself as the oikist of this "colony." Theoklymenos emerges not only as a seer but also as a skillful navigator for the oikist. He thus exemplifies the homology that the ethnographer Mary Helms observes in pre-industrial societies between figures skilled at negotiating the horizontal axis of long-distance travel (e.g., navigators and traders) and those who mediate the vertical axis of communication with the supernatural (e.g., prophets). Adept at traversing both axes, Theoklymenos aids Odysseus in effecting the metaphorical re-foundation of Ithaka.

In Chapter 2, I turn to Herodotus' characterization of the Iamid Teisamenos as a "leader of wars" (9.33) and seek to uncover a cultural tendency to regard certain military seers as conduits of talismanic power (kudos). Talismanic potency accounts for the several references to seers commanding armies and winning battles. Beyond their technical ability to interpret divinatory sacrifices, seers could be a crucial presence on campaign because their kudos was perceived to guarantee victory for the army that enlisted them. Once we recognize that seers could be viewed as bearers of kudos, we can examine how they converge and intersect with other talismanic figures similarly characterized in the context of warfare. For instance, the three versions of the conflict between Kroton and Sybaris reported in different sources diverge only in crediting an athlete, an oikist, and a seer as the cause of victory (Diod. Sic. 12.9 and Hdt. 5.44-45). These three competing tales reveal a shared template: a talismanic figure brings victory to Kroton.

I begin Chapter 3 by observing that scholars often emphasize the parallels between military campaigns and colonial expeditions of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Yet whereas seers regularly feature in accounts of archaic and classical Greek warfare, they rarely appear in colonial narratives of the same period. Furthermore, I discern that although the seer himself goes missing from most foundation tales, the functions the seer typically performs do not. I argue that the characterization of the oikist in colonial narrative as a figure who is singled out by and acts on behalf of Apollo, the god of divination, usurps the religious authority enjoyed elsewhere by the seer. In the second half of the chapter, I explore the idea of the seer's elision from colonial narrative by reading Bacchylides' Ode 11 as a specific example of this phenomenon. I demonstrate that in his rendition of the myth of the Proitids Bacchylides intentionally omits the seer Melampous and at the same time casts Proitos' arrival in Tiryns as a foundation and Proitos himself as its oikist.

Chapter 4 takes up a noteworthy exception to the seer's erasure from colonial discourse. In Olympian 6, Pindar praises the laudandus Hagesias as an Iamid seer, an athletic victor, and a co-oikist of Syracuse. The poet thereby joins together three kudos-bearing categories to fashion an individual of tremendous talismanic authority. Further, by identifying Hagesias as a co-oikist, Pindar uncovers what is typically occluded in foundation tales, namely the seer's participation in colonization. This final chapter accounts for the dual and often paradoxical nature of Hagesias by placing it in its cultural context. Hagesias is a talismanic figure subordinated to Hieron, a seer who is also a co-oikist, and an athletic victor linked to both the Peloponnese and Sicily who leads a victory revel "from home to home" (O. 6.99). I argue that these qualities make Hagesias a useful participant in Hieron's colonial program: his hybridity embodies Hieron's specific colonial fantasies for the recently founded Aitna while his two homes make him a less threatening figure for Syracuse, since he never fully belongs in any one location. In this way, Pindar distinguishes Hagesias from other seers, such as Teisamenos or the mythical Melampous, who are perceived as dangerous for the city and its political leaders, and he offers an alternative vision of a seer who is welcomed by Syracuse and credited with its foundation.

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