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21-03-2015, 08:12

Oracles and Divination

Along with the manifestation and procession of the god from the temple to bless fields and communities and repel disorder, the most vital interaction between temple and society took place in the course of divination. As the previous chapter described, based on numerous inscriptions, papyri, and ostraca that extend back to the New Kingdom, the processional barque on the shoulders of priests would halt at some point in the god’s journey through his lands. With an audience present and often with a priest’s mediation, lay people would ask questions of the god on his barque: ‘‘Is Pemou the one who stole my clothing? Is Soeris possessed by a god?’’ Then the barque would be felt to move on the priests’ shoulders in such a way as to imply the god’s answer - according to the interpretations of the observing priest. In this way communities experienced justice itself through the medium - and the theatre - of the temple god and his priests, while the divine image gained social significance beyond the plain magic of its appearance. Priests became essential, dramatic mediators of the god’s authority over social and legal issues, and the temple gained authority as the site, or the topographical source, of the oracle event. Divination, as we see it in the processional oracle or in any of the numerous other forms of oracle that developed in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods, served as the central performance of temple religion as it impacted religion in society (see Frankfurter 2005).

Oracles and Divination

Figure 28.5 Theadelphia wall-painting of an oracular crocodile-mummy procession, from Frankfurter 1998: pl. 19 (originally from Breccia, 1926).

There are numerous witnesses to the continuity ofthe processional oracle throughout Egypt into the later Roman Period. For example, a late second-century ad Roman edict attempted to proscribe all oracles, whether ‘‘in writings as it were divinely delivered’’ - like the ticket oracle, to be discussed shortly - ‘‘or through the procession ofimages’’ (P. Yale 299,12-15). Also from the second century, a wallpainting in the crocodile god Pnepheros’s temple in Theadelphia (Fayum) shows a procession of priests carrying a mummified crocodile on a bier and stopped before other priests for interpretation of the god’s movements. And still in the fourth century historians and inscriptions attest to an oracular barque of Isis housed at her temple at Philai (Frankfurter 1998: 145-56).

What is especially remarkable in the Graeco-Roman Period, however, is the very diversification of divination practices: through writing, through incubation, through moving and speaking statues, and through new systematized rites for gaining oracles beyond the temple. In these ways divination shifted from the public omen occurring during the course of a festival to a regular service at a temple. As a mother writes to her son in the second century ad, ‘‘Do not suppose that I have neglected you. Every ten days I consult the oracle about you on each occasion. So, because I found that good opportunities did not serve you in the present quarter I did not write you for this reason.’’ In fact, when she pursued further one question with the oracle, a priest informed her, ‘‘It is no longer the concern of the gods’’ (P. Merton II.81). Clearly this temple’s personalized oracle had become a regular part of some people’s lives.

One of the most intriguing developments of the temple oracle was the moving or speaking statue. During processions, of course, the god’s image became an oracular palette of sorts, attracting all eyes to its bobs and shifts atop the barque (as the Roman author Strabo describes, 17.1.43). In the same way that the shape of a bull’s liver, bird formations in a part of the noon sky, or animal tracks across a metre of sand each might vary ominously and thus stimulate oracular interpretation, so the god’s message would here be extracted from those ritually ominous movements. It is thus quite understandable that temples would develop statues that moved, apparently on their own accord, in their naoi or on pedestals before audiences on a more occasional basis than a festival procession. Evidence for one such moving statue, of a baboon, has been found at Saqqara (H. Smith 2002: 369), while a good number of stone images carved to rock on their bases have been found from early dynastic times (‘‘Nodding Falcon,’’ 1967/68). Even more archaeological evidence exists for speaking statues: crypts beneath the stone plinths in temples to hold cult statues or, at Karanis, crocodile mummies; naoi with holes bored in their lower sides; pipes that stretch from statue plinths out to adjoining rooms. All these contrivances allowed priests to hide and deliver, in the voice of a god, oracular sounds and messages to interpreters and audiences. A temple with such a facility would thus be able to offer oracles at many times beyond processions and festivals. (Frankfurter 1998: 150-2, with some mechanisms described by the fifth-century Christian writer Theodoret in his Church History 5.22).

The mother who writes her son about her regular oracular consultations may have attended such audiences before a speaking statue or, more likely in the second century, one of the many ‘‘ticket oracles’’ known to have existed in Egypt at this time (and to have been proscribed in the edict mentioned above, P. Yale 299). This procedure, attested in some form as far back as the New Kingdom, involved having one’s question written in both positive and negative form and submitting it to the priest for the god’s decision: ‘‘If Psnepheros should go to his brother’s house, send out this ticket; if Psnepheros should not go to his brother’s house, send out this ticket.’’ By means of a moving statue, a live animal, or some other oracular technique the ‘‘correct’’ answer is chosen and delivered to the client, who might then keep it with him as an assurance and an amulet. The largest caches of these oracular tickets have come from local temples of the crocodile god Sobek in the Fayum, written in both Demotic and Greek, but other temples maintained such oracles as well: Abydos, for example, whose Bes oracle received queries from all over the Mediterranean world, only to be shut down in 359 ad by imperial order (Ammianus Marcellinus 19.12; see Frankfurter 1998: 159-62).

What is so remarkable about the ticket oracles, beyond their privatization of the divination process, is their elevation of writing as a medium for deciphering the god’s communication. The god does not communicate through writing, but the written word allows his omens that much more precision: from an image’s mere nod to, for example, the prognosis for one’s father’s illness or the instruction to go to Alexandria, and, while Greek allowed a certain ecumenism in clientele, the many cults that operated predominantly through Demotic - indeed, the very antiquity of this ticket procedure in Egyptian writing - show us that writing itself rather than a particular script was associated with the interpretation of divine intentions. In fact, in the fifth century ad, long after the closing of temples’ ticket oracles, the same procedure arose again in order to gain the Christian god’s advice through the shrines of his saints. St. Colluthus of Antinoe, St. Philoxenus of Oxyrhynchos, and St. Leontius in Hermo-polis all sponsored such oracles - so we learn from the many papyri found that address the God of these saints in Greek and Coptic and are likewise phrased in positive and negative formulations (Papaconstantinou 1994; Frankfurter 1998: 193-95; 2005).

Incubation, mentioned above in relationship to healing cults, required that space be set off for lay visitors near some inner sanctum or sometimes within a section of the temple no longer used for priestly service. To sleep in such spaces put one’s body and psyche in immediate physical proximity to the god, so he could appear to the dreaming supplicant, sometimes obliquely, sometimes in full theophany, to instruct about queries or to reveal ineffable truths. Mantic incubation originated in Egypt primarily as a priestly pursuit (Sauneron 1959; Szpakowska 2003a: 123-57). The Demotic archives of the Thoth priest Hor, from Saqqara, record his regular consultation with gods through dreams, some of which involved quite spectacular theopha-nies (Ray 1976). Priests in the fictional Egyptian Setne-Khamwas romance sleep to behold the ‘‘mysterious forms’’ of gods like Osiris and Thoth (Setne 2, 2.4; 5:10). These uses of incubation to behold gods and to learn from them truths of a more esoteric nature consequently became a ritual commodity that priests of the GraecoRoman Period could market for popular pursuit. Both literary sources (Apuleius, Thessalos of Tralles) and proskynemata on temple walls testify to an incubation tradition taken beyond simple queries to a quest for theophany itself (Nock 1972: 368-74). One visitor to the Bes oracle of Abydos celebrated this folk god in such exalted terms as ‘‘all-truthful, dream-giver and oracle-giver, sincere, invoked throughout the whole world, celestial God’’ (Perdrizet and Lefebvre 1919: #500). Further south, at the frontier temple of Talmis, the local god Mandulis was said to have revealed himself as ‘‘the Sun, all-seeing ruler, king of all, all-powerful Eternity’’ (Nock 1972: 366; see Bernand 1969: 576-83).

These devotional celebrations of local temple deities as actually cosmic in scope in many ways follow the archaic priestly tradition of identifying and linking gods: Sobek and Re, Amun and Re, Renenutet with Isis, and even, in the ‘‘Isis aretalogies’’ of the Graeco-Roman Period, all the goddesses of the world as mere names for the one true goddess Isis (e. g., P. Oxy XI.1380). This priestly strategy also explains the phenomenon of the Bes oracle at Abydos. The elevation of this folk god as oracle-giver certainly owed its success partly to the Bes’s popularity, but priests seem to have derived Bes’s authority from the god’s ancient mythical role as guardian of the head of Osiris, the original god of Abydos. The cosmicizing of such gods thus followed from priestly ingenuity and tradition, not just Hellenistic predilection.

These esoteric roots to the Bes oracle also explain another phenomenon of the Graeco-Roman Period: the proliferation of ‘‘mobile’’ incubation and revelation spells. A series of such spells invoke Bes in his connection with Osiris: ‘‘I call upon you, the headless god. . . you are the one lying on a coffin ofmyrrh, having resin and asphalt as an elbow cushion... You are not a daimon but the blood of the two falcons who chatter and watch before the head of Osiris. You are the oracle-giving god’’ {PGMVIII.64-110; cf. VII.222-49, CII.1-17). These spells must have been formulated by priests affiliated with the Abydos oracle on the basis of older Egyptian texts {Dunand 1997; Frankfurter 1998: 169-74). In these ways oracular incubation in Egypt maintained a traditional character, even when sought by foreign pilgrims. As much as the quest for private visionary experiences reflected a Hellenistic interest in the self as medium for the Divine, the interpretations with which priests aided the pilgrims for identifying and celebrating gods drew on local traditions and mythologies for the representation of divinities.

This multiplication of divination rites and services - incubation, ticket-oracles, talking statues, often at the same shrines - served temples’ efforts to promote themselves as sacred centers, especially after the second century AD, when state sponsorship of temples ceased, and priesthoods and towns were forced to find other means of financing the religious infrastructure. Through various procedures for contacting gods people gained a more personalized relationship to temple divinities, while the temples maintained their importance in the landscape - and often well beyond it, like the cult of Bes at Abydos.

Those mobile Bes spells, however, represent a more centrifugal trend in the religion of Graeco-Roman Egypt as well. A large portion of the spell manuals in Greek and Demotic compiled in the Roman Period in fact sought to reformulate, for popular, often Greek-speaking clienteles, traditional Egyptian priestly rites for gaining instructive visions of gods: e. g., ‘‘Spell for a divine revelation. Invoke the great name in a time of great stress, in major and pressing crises... Say three times the ‘‘IAO,’’ then the great name of God. ‘‘I call upon you... let there be depth, breadth, length, brightness... Come in, lord, and reveal.’’ The serpent-faced god will come in and answer you. When you dismiss [him], make an offering of the skin of a serpent’’ {PGM XII.153-60, Betz 1986: 159). Some of these rites pertain to dreams, while others use bowls of water, mirrors, or pure young boys as ‘‘lenses’’ into the divine world. Thus, through a priestly expert’s instruction, authentic and awesome visions of gods might be had in chambers far from central temples {Ritner 1995; Frankfurter 2000: 180-2).

Another centrifugal trend in the practice of divination appears with sortes books - self-contained texts from which answers to typical oracular questions could be extracted. Inquiry of the gods here took place not by means of tickets ritually deposited at a temple but rather from a series of questions and answers, a special procedure, and an oracle-monger well-versed in endowing that procedure with mystery and authority. The client would ask her question and think of a number. The question would be found in the book with a number assigned, which, when combined with the client’s special number, would lead to an answer like: ‘‘If you sail soon, you will be in danger.’’ The sortes books were presented as the mysterious composition of an Egyptian priestly sage, Astrampsychos, or {later) the Christian saints, and they circulated alongside guides for the oracular use ofHomer and even of gospel texts {tr. Stewart and Morrell 1998; see Frankfurter 1998: 179-84; Van der Horst 1998). The entire procedure imparted a numinous power to the book itself as mysterious repository oftruth, and to some extent to the oracle monger as technician of the book, and in this way the type of personal consultation with gods that many temples were proffering could be had simply through the ministrations of a ritual expert and his book.

In these ways some historians have seen a larger shift from temple to ritual expert (J. Smith 1978), a shift that would reach its apogee in the Christian holy man of the fourth and fifth centuries - those ‘‘desert fathers’’ celebrated in dramatic Vitae like Athanasius’s on St. Antony or the History of the Monks of Egypt. These Vitae certainly celebrated their subjects as new oracles, answering by the power of the Christian god the same issues traditionally brought to temples to resolve (Frankfurter 1998: 184-93; 2003; see also Brown 1982), but it is important to realize that evidence for centrifugal tendencies like the ritual manuals and sortes books, and propaganda for the oracles’ replacement by wizards and holy men, do not in themselves imply or require the historical demise of temple oracles or of the cultural desire for ancient centers that those temples met. The fact that the Bes oracle of Abydos, the Isis temple of Philai (with its processional oracle), and even a smaller Isis oracle in Menouthis, just east of Alexandria, all continued to function with much renown well after Christianity’s rise shows that temples and their cults retained their meaning for society, even in an age of dwindling funds and ‘‘freelance’’ competition (Frankfurter 2005).