Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Wiebke Friese, Die Kunst vom Wahn- und Wahrsagen. Orakelheiligtümer in der antiken Welt. Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2013. Pp. 150. ISBN 9783805345972. €24.99.

Reviewed by Kim Beerden, Leiden University (k.beerden@hum.leidenuniv.nl)

Version at BMCR home site


Wiebke Friese has previously written a dissertation on the topic of oracular sites, which has been published as Den Göttern so nah: Architektur und Topographie griechischer Orakelheiligtümer (Franz Steiner Verlag 2010). In this 2010 book she has systematically discussed the archaeological evidence available for Greek oracular sites, making her more than suitable to write a popularizing volume such as the one under review here. It is obviously meant for the German market, where Philipp von Zabern is doing extremely well: this is another example of how a well-illustrated and well-edited hardcover book can be produced for an accessible price.

Friese's style is lucid and accessible; laudable are her consistent explanations of ancient vocabulary and jargon. Footnotes/endnotes are lacking and references to the secondary literature are very incidental. To provide something of a background, the volume offers a very short introductory reading list on ancient oracles at the back (of thirty-three titles mentioned there, thirteen are in English and another nineteen in German, and lastly one in French). The German market demands references to the primary sources, which are duly provided in the main text. An index is lacking but as the contents of the book are more than clear from the table of contents, this is not a vital problem.

The scope of the book is clarified in a very brief introduction: the concepts of divination and oracle are related to one another, where Friese argues that oracles are connected to a particular site – they have a spatial component. These Orakelheiligtümer in the ancient world are said to be discussed in what follows. As we shall see, however, the author does not (and cannot) consistently adhere to her own definitions. In the narrative that ensues, Friese shares her extensive knowledge of especially the archaeological materials, combining these with literary sources and providing a (sometimes very brief) synthesis of modern discussions. A first chapter of nineteen pages about divination (including many examples of practices not bound to a particular place) in the Near East and Egypt is a brief prelude to the main focus of the author: Greek and Roman oracles, which are discussed in respectively fifty-nine and sixty-three pages – a good balance.

Divination in Mycenae is the point of departure, after which Delphi is the first oracle site to be discussed in more detail as an illustration of an oracle provided through the perceived voice of the supernatural. The literary and the archeological sources are combined and Friese brings Delphi to life – the biggest compliment that can be given to the author of a popularizing book. The idea that the Pythia inhaled vapours which caused her trance is forwarded as the most acceptable theory (pp. 30-32) on the basis of the articles by De Boer et al.1 Some more discussion, taking into account the counterarguments of Lehoux, would have been appropriate, especially because this theme has tickled the popular imagination.2 The same can be argued about the perceived ambiguity of Delphic pronouncements. Next inspiration by means of 'holy waters' leading to oracular pronouncements at sites where Apollo was in charge is discussed by taking Ptoion, Didyma and Klaros (and 'other' sites of Apollo) into account. Dodona is the subsequent point of focus, after which underground necromantic sites receive plenty of attention. Oneiromantic sites are discussed: the Amphiareion of Oropos, Asclepieia (especially Epidauros) and Sarapieia It should, however, be noted that therapeutic dreaming is not necessarily oneiromantic – if the client is thought to have been healed during the night, something other than divination is going on: this distinction is not made (p. 74). Sarapis (pp. 75-78) is discussed in his Alexandrian mode and is considered especially popular in Roman times. Oracles for regular use complete our guided tour of ancient Greek oracle sites: dice, lots and a few special cases are taken into account. Note that these were not all practiced at oracle sites only.

The divisions made on the basis of oracular methods are risky because of the many discussions surrounding the way in which these oracles functioned. Just to provide one example: it has been argued that the voice of the supernatural could also be heard in the tree at Dodona – so would it not have to be discussed together with Delphi? Some argue that 'holy water' was the cause of the Pythia's sayings – which would take Delphi into the 'holy water' category.

The Roman part of the overview does not continue in the 'Greek categorization' according to method. It also includes divination that is not tied to a particular place (and I suppose it would be impossible to write about Roman divination otherwise). It is first concerned with augures, haruspices, keepers of the Sibylline Books and the influence Etruscan divination had on Roman practices. Oracles such as Praeneste, the oracle of Heracles in Ostia, and the goddess of Antium are discussed. Cicero and De divinatione receive attention in the sense that the problems of Cicero's belief or disbelief in divination are put in the limelight. Much attention is given to the oracle of Alexander at Abonuteichos and the seats of the Sibylline Oracles – distinguishing between the Books and Oracles and their different functions in Graeco-Roman and Christian religious practices. The 'silence of the oracles' and Christian ideas about oracular practices form the last twenty pages of the book.

An underlying problem is the division into 'Roman' and 'Greek' oracles or divinatory practices. Friese takes this division to be based on the time in which the divinatory practices occurred, but she does not take the language of the sources or physical areas into account. This leads to some difficulties. For example, the author considers Alexander of Abonuteichos as Roman, while this figure could at least be considered as Graeco-Roman. Why is Klaros, which reached the peak of its fame during the Empire, discussed in the Greek part while Abonuteichos is not? Why is the oracle of Sarapis not deemed Graeco-Roman, Egyptian or Roman? This problematic distinction is unnecessary: Friese could have glossed over this problem and could instead have taken her readers along on a geographical, chronological or even alphabetical trip.

The target audience of the volume is the layman – it is in my opinion not meant for the undergraduate student. For the latter target audience Die Kunst has to compete with Veit Rosenberger's Griechischer Orakels,3 while if the author would be considering a translation into English, it would need to contend with Sarah Iles Johnston's Ancient Greek Divination.4 I do not think this book beats these two heavyweights on the undergraduate market: although written more than ten years ago the quality of Rosenberger's book is still uncontested. It provides rather more attention to the academic discussions and backgrounds of divination than Die Kunst. Johnston's narrative and scope of divinatory practices (both at oracular sites and by free-lance experts) in Greece are unparalleled. Friese considers many aspects of the oracles, but it is clear that her focus is the architecture and archaeology of the sites.

The methodological hesitations above may be of little concern to the layman who will not only learn much about ancient oracles but will also enjoy a good read and gain an idea of how divination worked and in which conditions it took place at oracular sites. For them, this book is certainly recommended and the author should be praised for her efforts to make ancient divination accessible to a wide audience. The methodological issues should, however, be taken into account by those who would consider assigning this book to undergraduates.


1.   H.A. Spiller, J.R. Hale and J.Z. de Boer, 'The Delphic oracle: a multidisciplinary defense of the gaseous vent theory', Clinical Toxicology 40(2) (2002) 189-196; J.Z. de Boer, J.R. Hale and J. Chanton, 'New evidence for the geological origins of the ancient Delphic oracle (Greece)', Geology 29(8) (2001) 707-710.
2.   D. Lehoux, 'Drugs and the Delphic oracle', CW 101 (2007) 41-55; J. Foster and D. Lehoux, 'The Delphic oracle and the ethylene-intoxication hypothesis', Clinical Toxicology 45 (2007) 85-89.
3.   Veit Rosenberger, Griechischer Orakels: eine Kulturgeschichte (Darmstadt 2001).
4.   Sarah Iles Johnston, Ancient Greek divination (Malden, MA 2008).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.