A War Consultant and the Art of Divination

It was common practice for ancient Greeks and many ancient cultures to visit oracles and seers before they made big decisions or to find out whether the prospects of their future looked good. There is a difference between an oracle and a seer. An oracle, usually a priest or priestess, would relay predictions as given by the gods. The Delphic Oracle, a priestess called Pythia, was the most famous in Ancient Greece and the ancient world. A seer interpreted the signs given by the gods, such as bird signs or through the process of divination. They would sacrifice an animal, either bird, bull, sheep, or goat, make note of the animal’s dying throes, the blood flow and read the entrails.

Etruscan inscriptions on the bronze sheep's liver of Piacenza Courtesy of Wikipedia

Etruscan inscriptions on the bronze sheep’s liver of Piacenza
Courtesy of Wikipedia

‘As a prophet, Calchas had no rival in the camp. Past, present and future held no secrets from him; and it was his second sight—a gift he owed to Apollo—that had guided the Greek ships to Ilium.’
Iliad, Book 1 Lines 66-71

When Agamemnon rallied the Greeks to make war against the Trojans, he sought the advice of a seer—Kalkhas (Calchas), who was renowned for his accurate predictions. The king of Greek army wanted to make sure the gods were on his side and consulted Kalkhas. The seer made a number of observances Agamemnon needed to do before the Greeks left for Ilios. He predicted if the king did as suggested, the Greeks would defeat the Trojans.

Two notable predictions Kalkhas foresees and tells the assembled leaders:

  • the war would last ten years;
  • Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia first, to gain favourable winds and second, to punish the king for his arrogance in declaring he was better than the goddess Artemis with the bow and arrow.
Iphigeneia carried to the sacrifice (centre) while the seer Calchas (on the right) watches on and Agamemnon (on the left) covers his head in sign of deploration. In the sky, Artemis appears with a hind which will be substituted to the young girl. 1st century AD Naples National Archaeological Museum  From a house in Pompeii

Iphigeneia carried to the sacrifice (centre) while the seer Calchas (on the right) watches on and Agamemnon (on the left) covers his head in sign of deploration. In the sky, Artemis appears with a hind which will be substituted to the young girl.
1st century AD
Naples National Archaeological Museum
From a house in Pompeii

 

Compelling as they are, these statements aren’t in the Iliad, however are attributed to contents in the Kypria (Cypria), the prequel to Homer’s story. Only fragments of the epic cycle exist with a question mark as to whether Homer was the author. References by ancient writers/bards state Kypria was his work, so who are we do ignore such claims.

In the tenth year of the war, a plague strikes the Greek camp. Apollo was angry at Agamemnon who stole one of his priest’s daughters, refused to give her up and kept her as a concubine. It was Kalkhas who told Akhilleus and the Greek kings the reason for the plague:

‘Agamemnon insulted his priest, did not free his daughter and refused the ransom—that is why Apollo made us suffer and will continue to do so.’
Iliad, Book 1, Lines 94-96

The King of the Greeks was not happy and accused Kalkhas giving negative prophecies. He did return Khryseis to her father but in recompense he took Briseis from Akhilleus and well, that led to whole new argument!

A side note: in other later epic cycles, Kalkhas also predicted the Greeks would not win the war without Akhilleus.

In a scene for my upcoming novel The Legacy, the characters seek advice from the Delphic Oracle. The work of an oracle is never done.

Thank you for visiting and reading. I look forward to your comments.
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References:
Calchas/Kalkhas, Greek Mythology
Calchas, Greek Mythology Link
Homerica: The Cypria (fragments), translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White [1914]

 

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15 thoughts on “A War Consultant and the Art of Divination

  1. Fascinating how Geek leaders relied on Seers and Oracles before making a major decision. Thank you so much for explaining the difference between a Seer and Oracle in Greek mythology.

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    • The Oracle in particular was the first consultation for many who needed to make decisions. Even the settlements of various places were made based on the outcome of the Oracle’s prediction!

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  3. Wonder if this was common across the ancient world. Biblical armies also had seers. Or maybe this was a near eastern idea?

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  4. I really would hate to have been a sacrificial victim! I’m willing to be if your average man in the street had to sacrifice a child, no one would intervene with a substitute. If a king was set on war, I wonder if an oracle or seer would be brave enough to tell him it wasn’t a good idea?

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    • It does make you wonder whether Artemis would have swooped in and save a plebeian from a sacrifice. I guess though Agamemnon did pay the price on his return home. Karma?
      Thanks JM 😀

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