The Lives of Seers in Ancient Greece
It is undeniable that women in ancient Greece were severely oppressed compared to our modern standards (in this country). They were restricted in so many ways that we find it hard to fathom the realities of their existence, even with liberal use of our imaginations. They, for the most part, seem to have been treated like children or pets: taken care of, put out of sight, and not respected for their intelligence or contributions in any meaningful way.
However, throughout our studies we have been confronted with perplexing contradictions. Spartan society is one such contradiction: where women are provided with education, exercise, more plentiful food rations, and more freedom. And tales have been passed down through the centuries of individual women with strength of character and outspokenness who commanded the respect of men. Now we address another contradiction: the existence of women credited with the gift of divine prophecy.
Fortunately for us, the existence of these seers is well documented in texts (such as the Oracula Sibyllina, which documents many of the prophecies) that have survived the tests of time. That is not to say, however, that all is clear to us. The hazy mists of time have obscured many of the details surrounding the seeresses and have provided an arena ripe for speculation, interpretation and imagination. This gives us the opportunity to empower (at least in our minds) these select women from ancient Greece with unprecedented influence in the otherwise men-only spheres of politics and other aspects of Greek life.
Although elaborate legends surround the seeresses (also called sibyls), there are some things which appear to be fairly well established as fact. The seeresses were almost always female, and there appear to have been several of them. They often seem to have prophesied from inside a cave or just outside of a cave. The prophecies were traditionally delivered in poetic hexameter. Some sibyls spoke from their own perspective, referring to themselves when they said “I.” Others spoke from the perspective of the god (usually Apollo or Zeus), for all intents and purposes being possessed by the god during the uttering of the prophecies. Some would sing the prophecies, some would have ecstatic fits, and others would not speak at all, but either write the prophecies out or draw a lot from a container indicating yes or no to a particular question. And there were seemingly two types of sibyls, those whose prophecies addressed the world at large and those who responded to questions put to them. The oracles primarily foretold disaster.
The most famous seeresses were the Pythia of Delphi, through whom Apollo spoke, and the Dove Priestesses of Dodona, through whom Zeus spoke. The rituals prior to speaking the prophecies included purifying baths and drinking water or inhaling vapors from underground sacred springs. The seeresses were also chaste, although in some temples it wasn’t required that they be virgins. Some temples required young virgins, which other required women past childbearing years. They all seem to have lived apart from their families.
Controversy and Legend
The legends surrounding the sibyls were as diverse and contradictory as those surrounding the gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon. The most interesting and convoluted legends concern her place of origin, birth and death. While some sources say that she is descended from Zeus and Lamia, or from a nymph, other sources credit her with mundane birth. One legend says that there was only one sibyl who lived nearly 1,000 years and attributes her appearance in so many places to travel. She was also reputed to shrink to nothingness and become only a disembodied voice speaking prophecies. The long life and gradual disintegration without death are attributed to an agreement she made with Apollo to give herself to him. He granted her long life when they made the agreement, but withheld perpetual youth until she carried through with her end of the bargain. She reneged and ended up living longer than her body could.
Some goddesses were also reputed to speak through the sibyls from time to time, including Artemis and Hera. While sibyl and seer and prophetess are used somewhat interchangeably here and throughout literature, there are also specific seers, such as the Pythia of Delphi. And while the legends group many of them together into one person, there were clearly more than one. Blundell, et al., tell us that there were as many as three Pythias at a time. It seems likely that the terms Sibyl, Sibylla or Sibylline were referring to a title rather than a given name. Places of origin are diverse and include Cumae, Cimmeria, Erythrae, Libya, Samia, Persia, Delphi, Colophonia, Claros, Delos, Phyrgia, and Marpessus.
Prophecies and Their Place in Society
For the curious-minded, who might like to know what a prophecy looked like, here is an example of an actual prophecy in hexameter which is probably from the Pythia of Delphi:
But whenever the race of the Trojans shall have got the upper hand in contest with the Phoenicians, then unbelievable events will happen. The sea will shine with unquenchable fire, and, after thunder-claps, water spouts upwards will rush through the wave, mingled with a rock-mass, and it will be made firm there — an island never before named by men; and worser folk by force of hands shall conquer the stronger man.
This oracle refers to the Second Macedonian War and a volcanic eruption. Another example:
You Macedonians who boast in the dynasty of the Argeadae, Philip when he rules shall be to you a blessing and a bane. Indeed the earlier shall place monarchs over towns and peoples, but the younger shall lose all honour, when he has been subdued by men both from west and east.
Clearly the prophecies were sometimes vague and mysterious and sometimes very clear. Parke has pessimistically expressed his opinion throughout his book that the vague ones were written before the fact and the specific ones were written after the fact. Oracles also seem to have been distributed throughout society by people who did that by trade. They would apply oracles indiscriminately to situations as their clients circumstances seemed to warrant. In this way, prophecies became well known.
Empowering the Prophetesses
All of this might leave you pondering the power of the prophetess. Although Pomeroy has inferred that the seeress had no real influence on the meaning of the prophecies because male priests would interpret the prophecies, I don’t agree. The male priests could only interpret the oracles based on what the seeress gave them to work with. Her words had very real power. For example, there are only so many ways you can interpret the second oracle above. And Blundell, et al., agrees that she was consulted by Greek statesmen on matters of the highest importance.
However, I am most gratified by the account given by Euripides’ in this passage from “The Captive Melanippe”:
… Women are better than men and I will prove it. … And in divine affairs — I think this of the first importance — we have the greatest part. For at the oracles of Phoebus women expound Apollo’s will. At the holy seat of Dodona by the sacred oak the female race conveys the thoughts of Zeus to all Greeks who desire it. As for the holy rituals performed for the Fates and the nameless goddesses, these are not holy in men’s hands; but among women they flourish, every one of them. Thus, in holy service woman plays the righteous role.
Thus, from the pen of a man from ancient Greece we hear that it is through the female mouth that Apollo and Zeus speak their will. And men listed. She had Power.
Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Women in the Classical World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.New York: Schocken Books, 1995.