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Ancient Greek decision making with help from the gods

In the world of Ancient Greece the interpretation of supernatural signs was a versatile tool to facilitate decision-making. This is the central hypothesis of the PhD dissertation of historian Kim Beerden. Defence on 14 February.

Supernatural signs

Dodona, oracle site in Greece.
Dodona, oracle site in Greece.

Whereas we try to reduce uncertainty with risk analysis and purchasing power figures, in Antiquity people used divination, i.e. they obtained information about the past, the present and the future by interpreting signs that were viewed as supernatural. This ‘knowledge’ helped combat insecurity and facilitated individual and collective decision-making.

Greek authority

This is the first systematic comparative study of ancient divination: Greece plays a central role and is compared to Neo-Assyrian Mesopotamia and Republican Rome. The comparison sheds light on the great importance of the individual Greek homo divinans in the process. He is the one who interprets a sign on the basis of his personal authority, while the Roman and Mesopotamian homines divinantes rely on their origin, their training and on textual evidence.

Different from Rome and Mesopotamia

Another difference is that Greeks mostly asked the supernatural for advice on making decisions regarding an open-but-not-empty future in which a number of options were available. This differs from Mesopotamia, where people mostly asked for predictions, and Rome, where people primarily sought the gods’ approval.

A flexible phenomenon

In many ways, Greek divination was a flexible phenomenon and this corresponds to the relatively low degree of divinatory institutionalisation: it was the individual who chose to recognise a given sign; it was also the individual who chose to call in a given expert or to interpret the sign himself. The supernatural offered non-binding advice and a person had to make choices and decisions themselves. The Greek future was flexible and open, but not empty. The most remarkable characteristic of Greek divination is the fact that at all stages of the process, the individual had at his disposal a wide variety of options.


Thursday 14 February 2013, 15:00 hours 
Academy Building, Rapenburg 73, Leiden 
Faculty of Humanities 
Thesis supervisor: Prof. L. de Ligt 

(12 February 2013/Kim Beerden/MD)

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