Snakes Made a Few Prophets

Using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) would help in blog titles, especially when you want to make a pun, as I do in this headline. Sarah Iles Johnston describes both prophets and their lucrative possibilities in her 2008 Ancient Greek Divination.

Like an Ancient Wizard of Oz
In ancient times, it seems being a decent, if dishonest, prophet could make you a very respectable living. People rich and poor would make inquiries. The service level provided by the prophet depended on the fee. Would the petitioner require the guidance from the horse’s (actually, snake’s) mouth? If so, the service cost more. There was the financing of props, like a human wig and mask for the pet snake trained to operate the mask’s mouth so it seemed to speak. Would the petitioner be satisfied with a scrolled response? If so, the cost was lower.

Location, Location, Location
The prophet Alexander (c. 150 AD), described in detail in Alexander the False Prophet, by the Greek satirist Lucian, had an accomplice named Cocconas. The two of them were trying to figure out where to locate their oracular shop. Alexander said he thought his hometown, Abonuteichos in Paphlagonia, would be perfect for a start because he knew for a fact there were plenty of suckers.

They were very successful and drew in hordes of people, eventually expanding their business and putting Abonuteichos on the map.

Becoming a Prophet
While the prophet Alexander set up shop, some (types of) prophets were itinerant, specifically the manteis who were trained in family businesses and guilds like doctors, and may have served some of the same functions. Manteis hear what the gods or animals pour into them and then tell it to others. Three mythological manteis (Helenus, Cassandra, and Melampus) got their gift of understanding when a snake licked their ears. “Bees drop honey… upon the lips of the future mantis Iamus while he is an infant [p.111].” Urine and saliva could be used to remove the gift.

Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications (Or Not)
In the Greek world, most people were at least slightly acquainted with arts of divination. They could tell, for instance, if the birds were on the wrong side and the prophet said the omen was favorable that the prophet was lying. Manteis did their job only somewhat better than the average person. This meant that the average Joe could make sure the mantis was doing his job. This isn’t the case when a question is asked of an oracle, but is when what you’re dealing with is a set of visible signs. Not only could he do a better job but he could cite his guild membership or mythological ancestor.


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