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Did Athenian democracy erode popular belief in divination? If so why?

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Introduction

SONJA CHEUNG DID ATHENIAN DEMOCRACY ERODE POPULAR BELIEF IN DIVINATION? IF SO WHY? Divination was a prevalent feature in Archaic Greece, as it provided objective advice, to assist people in making appropriate decisions in problematic predicaments. In certain situations its ambiguity allowed decisions to be postponed, or blame to be assigned to others. Divination was also used to explain matters that seemed unexplainable, such as crop failure or drought. This is illustrated in the Homeric epics, which depicts numerous oracle interpreters, such as Calchas, consulting oracles on domestic, as well as, military decisions. Divination was a guiding authority in ancient society. However, during the fifth and fourth century BC, the democratic establishment and the dominance of politics, overtook the importance of divination, so that decision making occurred in democratic assemblies, with the use of rhetoric. Unexplainable matters were now approached by cults, such as the Sophists, and the increase in scientific knowledge meant that divination was not so readily consulted. Democracy brought politics, rather than religion and divination, to the forefront of society. The Melian dialogue illustrates the Athenian's waning belief in divination. Firstly, it highlights the lack of divinity because of the rise of democracy. The Athenians approach the subject of justice, by suggesting that its equality is dependent on the discussion and persuasion of both of their people.1 The distinct lack of gods in this statement is significant, when compared to the literature of Archaic Greece, which assigns the gods as issuers of justice. For example, in the Iliad, Apollo justly sends down a shower of arrows onto the Greeks for taking the daughter of his priest.2 We must take into consideration that this is merely fiction, but it still highlights the important role of the gods in ancient society. ...read more.

Middle

It is also notable that Athenian democracy believed in individual thoughts and self-assertion, preferring not to obey orders from other sources. Thus, consulting oracles went against their democratic belief. In contrast, the Spartan state was based on following orders, therefore, consulting oracles provided them with guidance. The sceptic interpretation of Thucydides towards these events also relays the deteriorating belief in divination, due to democracy. For example, Thucydides places a logical explanation next to the omens that he reports. That is, he states that the stone Hermae in Athens had been disfigured, which was considered to be a bad omen for the forthcoming expedition. Thucydides insinuates that this occurred due to drunken men.17 Likewise, when he reports the omen of thunder when the Athenians have been defeated by the Syracusan side, he states that this occurs often in the season of autumn.18 Thucydides neither denies nor verifies the relevance and interpretation of divination, but assigns a logical explanation to them, highlighting his sceptical attitude. He also acknowledges that oracles can be manipulated, when he relates that an oracle concerning the Athenian plague was recalled and interpreted to fit the situation, when a word was translated to mean 'death', rather than 'dearth'. This illustrates his scepticism to the interpretation of written oracles. Furthermore, Thucydides criticises Nicias for being too inclined to divination, as Nicias was persuaded by his men to postpone their journey because of an eclipse that had been seen, Thucydides blames this as a reason for Syracusan domination over the Athenians.19 Dover20 has suggested that even though Thucydides may have been a sceptic towards divination, he was still not an atheist. ...read more.

Conclusion

Thirdly, the rise of rhetoric provided objective advice on situations, which had previously been asserted by oracles and different forms of divination. In a similar vein, generals, in the democratic era, were employed to make military decisions, therefore divination did not need to be consulted. However, divination was not completely removed from Athenian democratic society. Xenophon illustrates that in times of war, the Athenians still turned to divination for guidance33, however they retained a degree of caution towards it. It is significant that Xenophon is present at many of the sacrifices and when omens are being interpreted, so that he has an insight into the interpretations, as he was the, hegemon, head of the army. Divination was still present in Athenian democracy, despite sceptical attitudes towards it, because it was able to explain situations beyond human reasoning that had not yet been approached by the philosophers and minds of democratic Athens. Moreover, it was still a reassuring feature to everyday citizens, who still practised divination in private, Xenophon's Anabasis, illustrates its constant use in the lives of his soldiers. However, its use in the public sphere was limited because of the major mistake from the Sicilian expedition. Moreover, the use of divination was part of Greek culture, and had become part of daily lives, it is significant that sceptics, such as Thucydides, never denies any of the omens from divination or refutes the existence of the gods, but maintains that it is an important part of society. Thus, Athenian democracy did erode belief divination, but not to such a great extent that it was completely erased from Athenian society. ...read more.

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