Six More Weeks of Something: Prognostication and the Art of the Future in the Ancient World

“You want a prediction about the weather you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” — Groundhog Day

I wasn’t sure what this week’s entry was going to be about, but then I woke up yesterday morning to this gentleman’s furry face… 

Phil’s, not his handler’s.

…and realized he, along with the fine folks of Punxsutawney had provided me with an easy in into talking about divination and other ways that people tried to make sense of a chaotic universe in the world of The God’s Wife

Divination, broadly, is any ritualized attempt to gain insight into a question or situation. For our purposes, I’m going to separate out divination from “fortune-telling”, by denoting the latter as more individualized and less regulated, and “divination” as an organized set of beliefs and practices with an established place in their respective society. Much in the way that Miss Cleo was supposed to tell us that her predictions were for entertainment purposes only in the ‘90s, as opposed to practitioners of the Serer religion in modern day Senegal. 

Roman mosaic of characters in a play consulting a fortune-teller

The line between the two is understandably blurry — a really interesting example of this is in Japan, which has a historical tradition of divination, as well as a contemporary one derived from a multitude of outside sources like the Chinese I Ching and Western tarot — but I will do my best to not load down either term with pejorative connotations. Some of the prognostication methods we’ll talk about have no basis in observable facts, but the mysteries we collectively unravel together become science and there’s still a lot of things we’re learning about the world around us. 

As we saw in my entry about Egyptian magic, the ancient Egyptians never met a ritual they didn’t love, but when it came to advice, their divination bent was generally either to consult the gods directly in one’s dreams as we did with the Imhotep spell, or through oracles. Oracles are pervasive in many ancient cultures, and was usually a priest or priestess of a favored future-revealing deity, who interpreted the will of the gods or predicted the outcome of actions. Incidentally, sometimes Egyptians practiced a sort of hybrid model, as one could pay a priest to attempt to contact a god via the Dream World for you and then they would interpret the god’s response.

The most famous oracle to most people today is the Oracle of Delphi, the high priestess of the Greek god Apollo, residing in his temple on the titular island. Although Zeus was a popular oracular deity because as king of the Greek gods, he supposedly had domain over all time, including the future, Apollo was a prophetic god as well and had several cult sites dedicated to this side of him. He taught the god Hermes the art of cleromancy, that is, divination through the casting of lots or dice, and most famously granted his gift of prophecy to the Trojan princess Cassandra in exchange for sexual favors. Cassandra’s last-minute change of heart on that exchange is the reason her prophecies were never believed, because Apollo couldn’t take back his gift, but he certainly wasn’t about to just let her have her powers for free. 

Despite its widespread acceptance and practice, prophetic divination has a rather ambivalent bent in Greek lore. In addition to Cassandra’s unfortunate case, the other famous seer in the Greek canon is Tiresias, who is only given the gift of prophecy after the goddess Hera blinds him for not giving her an answer she wanted to hear. Being able to see the future is a blessing and a curse, and the ancient Greek storytellers seem to use these as cautionary tales of being careful what you wish for. 

The Delphi priestess’ actual title is the Pythia, Pythos supposedly being the original name of Delphi. The Pythia delivered prophecies to supplicants from Apollo through an induced state of divine possession (enthusiasmos in Greek), a common method of divination in many cultures. Science has long attempted to discover the source of this altered state, favorite theories being subterranean hallucinogenic gases beneath the temple, or the toxicological profile of the oleander burned during the pre-gaming rituals used by the Apollonian priesthood, but really, we’re not sure.  

These are certainly possible, but monastic individuals from both Eastern and Western traditions have achieved similar states through mindful meditation, so it could be that the Pythia’s pre-ecstatic rituals (she took a ritual bath, wore a special plain white chiton, etc.) put her in a particular frame of mind. That was certainly what was done to the supplicants — the rituals of offering a sacrifice and mindfully considering the question to be asked of the oracle was supposed to induce a frame of mind open to hearing the god’s wisdom. Though usually the famous stories of people completely missing the mark on the Pythia’s prophecies suggest this might have been less than successful.

Oedipus always springs to mind.

Anyway, the most famous of the Egyptian oracles was the one located at the Siwa Oasis, in northern Egypt on border between Egypt and Libya. The oasis was home to a major temple of the god Amun, the solar deity that had synthesized Ra by the New Kingdom (1550s-1070s BC) after the native Egyptians’ defeat of their Hyksos conquerors. The priests of the temple would drink the oasis’ water and then interpret the light refractions coming off an emerald-encrusted statue of Amun. 


The Siwa Oracle’s most well-known pronouncement was made to Alexander the Great (yes, he’s back again…) when the Macedonian king visited the oasis after his conquest of Egypt. 

“Conquest” is a strong word…

The priests declared Alexander to be the rightful pharaoh and son of Amun (Zeus/Jupiter), as well as irresistible in battle. Alexander was more than happy to throw his real dad Philip II under the bus for a shot at being the son of a god and the legitimate ruler of Egypt. 

Certainly don’t know anyone else like that…

But one thing that Alexander brought with him when he came to Egypt was Babylonian astronomy and astrology following his conquest of the Persians, although Egypt’s earlier contact with the Assyrians might have done that as well. The Greeks, and later the Romans, called the Babylonians Chaldeans, even though the name Chaldea originally referred to a small, non-native Mesopotamian group who were assimilated into the ancient Babylonian empire. The Chaldeans were stargazers and much of what we think of as astrology — using the placement of heavenly bodies to interpret events — comes from them, at least initially. 

The Egyptians themselves had a history of both astronomy and astrology, the latter in the form of decanic astronomy, following the movements of small groups of stars within what we think of as the constellations. There are thirty-six decans divided up over the twelve zodiac signs: for example, our current sign of Aquarius holds decans 31-33 (22-24 in ancient times). Used in the Egyptian solar calendar, the heliacal (a star being briefly visible above the horizon before sunrise) risings of the decans were used to keep a 360 (+5) calendar and a 24-hour day divided into twelve daytime and twelve nighttime hours. And because this is the Egyptians we’re talking about, all of those days and hours have a corresponding deity. The heliacal rising of Sopdet (Sirius) marked the beginning of Akhet, the flood season in the Egyptian calendar. 

The Egyptian constellations

Decanic astrology developed to also associate these risings with events or even the contracting of diseases. Priests would make amulets to protect or cure the wearer with ailments associated with certain decans. 

Now, Alexander and the Egyptians might have taken to Chaldean astrology like ducks to water, but as is so often the case, there was at least one group in the ancient world that thought this was all hogwash. 

Roman writings are chock-full of men rolling their eyes at credulous plebs throwing away their money on Chaldean and Egyptian astrologers, and arguably no one thinks it’s a bigger waste of time than Marcus Tullius Cicero. Late Republic statesman and orator, Cicero also has left to posterity a bundle of literature which has mostly been used to teach (or torture, depending on your point of view)  post-classical students Latin and rhetoric. 

In his De Divinatione, Cicero adopts the Platonic stance of engaging in a dialogue with his brother, Quintus, about the merits, or lack thereof, of divination and other prognostication techniques. And just like Plato, he uses this as an opportunity to show everyone how smart he is and how wrong their opinions are. Ok, it’s his brother so he doesn’t treat him as bad as Plato treats Alcibiades, but still… 

Cicero wrote it down because Quintus probably fell asleep halfway through the argument.

Quintius believes in some forms of divination in part because he is a Stoic. Stoicism is often contrasted with the Epicureanism we talked about a couple of weeks ago, in that while Epicureans believe the avoidance of pain is life’s highest pursuit, Stoics believe that virtue is the goal of life. Like Epicureans, Stoics are not against pleasure, but they don’t think pleasure itself is inherently good. A bit like Confucian thought, or some of the teachings of the Vedas, Stoicism puts emphasis on following the natural order of the universe. Virtue, to the Stoic, comes from being in another form of dharmic harmony with the world and one’s fellow man, and using logic to control one’s impulses leads to true happiness, rather than merely avoiding pain as the Epicureans do. 

So, as more reason-loving folks than the comfort-loving Epicureans, you might be surprised that Stoics often displayed a tolerance for astrology and divination, but the connection isn’t quite as bizarre as it looks on its face. Since Stoics believe in an ordered, logical universe, the stars are a part of that and are open to interpretation, if one uses reason to discern events. Like with other forms of divination, Quintus would argue just because we do not understand all of what the stars say or why certain things happen doesn’t make them false. Basically, they thought a lot of what the Chaldeans and the Egyptians were doing was unscientific nonsense, but that they had the right mindset to do better.  

As I mentioned in that same entry above, the future emperor Tiberius fancied himself a Stoic, but he also shared Quintus’ soft spot for future-casting, especially astrology. Some of this derives from his acquaintance with the philosopher-mathematician Thrasyllus, whom he met while he was living in a self-imposed exile on Rhodes for a few years around the turn of the 1stcentury AD (ooh, boy, we’ll get to that eventually, I’m sure…). Thrasyllus was also a Stoic astrologer and Tiberius would come to rely heavily on his predictions throughout his life and later reign — in part because Thrasyllus was the first one to predict Tiberius’ accession to the imperial throne at a time when even he didn’t think that was ever going to happen. 

Cicero has no time for astrology of any stripe, but perhaps more unusually for a Roman, he doesn’t put much store in Roman divination, either. And yes, despite making fun of everyone else’s superstitions, the Romans had plenty of their own. 

Wonder what that’s like?

I touched on one of them before, briefly, when I mentioned that the Romans got some of their religious practices from the Etruscans. Haruspicy was the art of interpreting the entrails of animals, especially the liver, to discern the future. Because of the semi-foreign roots of the practice, haruspicy always remained a little suspect in the Roman mind, although it had official sanction.

Cato the Younger (a Stoic more in line with skeptical Cicero) once said he was surprised that one haruspex did not burst out laughing when he saw another one.

The larger group of officially sanctioned diviners in ancient Rome were the augurs. Augury is the divining practice of interpreting the behavior and flight patterns of birds for omens. In Rome, the augurs were a political magistrate position that many well-connected men served in at least some of their lives. 

While originally just for the birds, Roman augury eventually evolved into the interpretation of a variety of omen types, including weather and the behavior of any quadruped animal. For example, wolves within the city limits were always a bad omen. The augurs, supervised by the College of Pontiffs (at the time of the early Empire, fifteen men elected to the post for life) and the pontifex maximus (after 13 BC, Octavius), would read signs in these various ways in order to determine divine opinion of important proposed legislation and official acts. An unfavorable sacrificial outcome or sign wasn’t a death sentence to a proposal, though, as an augury could be repeated until a more favorable pronouncement was reached, or the augur doing the divining could consult with his colleagues and they could reach a consensus that way. This made the augurs and the College of Pontiffs very powerful, but it also gave the Senate — and later men like Julius and Octavius — a sounding board for their ideas and whether or not the ruling class was likely to go along with a particular course of action. 

For the record, Cicero was an augur, too, whether he believed in it or not.

We often think of the ancients as extremely superstitious and convinced of crazy things about the world around them, but I’ve tried to show that, just like today, there were a wide spectrum of belief when it came to unexplained phenomena and divination. For every Egyptian ordering a decanic amulet from a priest of Amun to ward off disease, there was a Cicero telling anyone who would listen that star signs are bunk. And although Cicero would claim to spend his life fighting against superstition, he would also participate in the Roman auguries as a practical way to influence politics and government. For the average person living in any part of the Mediterranean during these times, life was unpredictable and prognostication was no more than another way of staying on the right side of the gods and the more temporal powers that be. After all, it’s claimed that if Thrasyllus hadn’t successfully predicted his soon-to-be imperial patron’s rise, Tiberius was going to have him thrown off of a cliff. Better to be safe than shark bait.

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