Writing Revelation: Game of Thrones, Greco-Roman Oracles, and the Epigraphy of Divination

Promotional photo of Carice van Houten as Melisandre on Game of Thrones. Image via Wikimedia.

Who doesn’t want to know the future? This question has been on my mind since finishing some solid binge-watching of Season 5 of Game of Thrones in order to catch up before the season premiere on Sunday. Over the course of the season, I became rather fascinated with the priestess of the Lord of Light, Melisandre, who served as the advisor to the rather unfortunate Stannis Baratheon. Although I cannot prove it, it seems to me that Melisandre is closely based upon another famous female prophetess named Martha, a Syrian woman whom the Roman commander Marius brought with him on campaign in an opulent litter (Plut. Mar. 17). Although the Senate of Rome had initially rejected her prophecies, after the imperator was victorious at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BCE, her visions of the future became legitimized–at least to Marius. The Greek historian Plutarch wrote that as a result of his belief in her powers, “[Marius] would make sacrifices at her bidding” (Ibid).

Notably, Martha did not ask Marius to sacrifice a child, as Stannis Baratheon did on Game of Thrones. I suspect that in Stannis’ case, George R.R. Martin is actually alluding to the Greek myth that held that Agamemnon attempted to kill his daughter Iphigenia in order that his ships might sail safely to Troy (some versions of the myth have her dying). (Historical NB: It is always a bad idea to sacrifice your children in hopes of swaying the Gods in your favor.) As both Melisandre and Martha demonstrate, the future is a murky place, and people will do almost anything to try to make it more lucid. Moreover, Marius and Stannis had the luxury of funds in order to seek their futures, but what about those who did not have enough income to allow for a personal soothsayer (i.e. most of us)?

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A 1st c. Roman mosaic depiction of the sacrifice of Iphigenia from Ampurias in Spain. Image via Wikimedia. The mosaic is now at the Archaeological Museum of Catalunya.

Oracles: Throughout the Mediterranean, people from all social classes travelled to oracles in order to find out answers about the future. We are told by Pausanias (10.24.1) that at the famed Oracle at Delphi, there were γράματτα (inscriptions) in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo that contained philosophical aphorisms for visitors to reflect on as they entered: ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’ (know thyself) and μηδέν άγαν (‘nothing in excess’). A bronze statue of Homer apparently stood nearby that had his Delphic prophecy inscribed on the statue base. Although we don’t have these inscriptions today, Pausanias and others historians’ descriptions of the inscriptions that covered Delphi indicate that the site contained many oracular responses, warnings, and writings that spoke directly to visitors seeking to find their future. Manuela Mari probably put it best when she noted about the inscriptions at Delphi that “A monument or inscription allows the amplification of the narrative beyond the limits of what is visible, or the evaluation of the distance between glorious past and its physical remains” (Mari 2013: 127). Inscriptions continued to connect visitors with the past, even as they sought their future.

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Memento Mori mosaic, convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome, Italy. Now in the National Museum, Rome, Italy. Image via Wikimedia.

Many of these pilgrimages to oracles are ephemeral visits, with the oral responses disappearing along with the ones that spoke or heard them. We must remember that most things were indeed spoken in antiquity rather than written down. However, we do have some inscribed evidence for prophecies beyond literary testimonies, which can tell us about how they may have played out in reality.

A map of the principal Greek sanctuaries. The hexagonal shapes indicate a sanctuary with an oracle attached. Image via Wikimedia.

The oracular tablets from the oracle at Dodona in Epirus are especially telling. Apparently, visitors wrote their query on a leaden strip and then folded it over numerous times. The inquiry was placed in a jar and then the the priestess drew from that jar various questions. At the same time, she drew responses from a separate jar. These said “yes”, “no”, et cetera. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 of these responses. Most date to about 500-250 BCE (Oberhelman 2006: 240). They cover many of the same issues we would ask about today: children, marriages, health, and money. My favorite is perhaps just, “Did Thopion steal the silver?” Unfortunately, we do not know what the oracle’s response was.

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Lead tablet from the Sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona. A man named Hermon asks to which god address his wish to have children with his wife Kretaia. Ioannina Museum, Epirus, Greece, c. 500 BCE. Note that the text is in boustrophedon and thus is read right to left.

Astragaloi: Another common way of asking the future was quite literally to roll the dice, an approach called astragalomancy. A number of inscriptions on ἀστράγαλοι (Lat. astragali, i.e., the four-sided knucklebones from sheep, pigs, and goats or their imitations in bronze, wood, or other materials) have been found. Usually they were used for a popular betting game, but in some instances, they were used to divine the future. A number of inscriptions found in southwestern Asia Minor, at the Lycian site of Termessos, tell us about this divination game. The inscriptions date to the 2nd century CE and indicate that boards were sometimes setup so that certain rolls of the ἀστράγαλοι could divine the future. (Paus. 7.25, 10). There are 56 inscriptions on a pillar that then helped individuals interpret their roll. Epigrapher Fritz Graf has a great article on these inscriptions, which often have a formula: Roll of the Dice + Outcome + God to be sacrificed to (“If ____ is rolled, then____ will happen, and so appease the god (or goddess)______”).

A number of astragaloi game pieces now reside at the British Musuem. These are from 6th c. BCE Cyprus. Image via the British Museum.

Bibliomancy: A final way to consult an oracle as a common person was through using books for sortes. This means opening a book to a seemingly random passage and using it to divine your future. In his Confessions, Augustine seems to allude to this practice, noting that he randomly opened to a relevant passage written by the Apostle Paul in his Epistles: “I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.’ No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away” (Conf. 8.12).

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Papyrus of Romans 16:34 – Hebrews 1:7. P.Mich.inv. 6238 [known as P46]. Might this be how Augustine read his Paul? You can explore the letters of Paul held at the University of Michigan library in a new iTunes App here.
Augustine clearly believed that the passage he had landed on spoke to his own personal conflict. There is, after all, often a notable narcissism to superstitions and to divination. However, patristic texts were not the only written words consulted to divine the future. Poetry could also be consulted. The term “rhapsodomancy” is the technical name for randomly consulting poetry for divine answers, and both Homer and Virgil were favored texts for this type of divination. A few years ago, Mary Beard ran an excellent column on the so-called Sortes Virgilianae.  As she explores: from the early empire forwards, people randomly opened passages of Virgil if they had a question that needed to be answered. There is an online version of the Sortes Virgilianae here, so go ahead and ask for your fate through the words of the poet. Into the Middle Ages, Virgil was still seen as something approaching a divine text.


Illumination on vellum from the Vergilius Vaticanus (Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225). 5th c. CE.

Although early Christians were no longer supposed to consult “pagan” oracles after the fourth century, the oracular ritual of submitting written questions did not die out. The epigraphic habit simply transferred from shrines dedicated to pagan deities over to shrines dedicated to saints. One of the best examples of this comes from two papyri (P. Oxy. XVI 1926 and P. Rendel Harris 54) dated to the 6th century CE, originally from the shrine of Saint Philoxenus (The best article on these papyri is by the great papyrologist Herbert Youtie, but is unfortunately locked up in JSTOR). A man asking whether he should go into the banking business submits both an affirmative and a negative response on two pieces of papyrus. The priest was then supposed to hand back the correct answer, although we don’t know whether the oracle told the man to go into finance or not. These papyri illustrate the fact that the will to divine the future for one’s self is part of the human condition and not limited to a purely pagan practice.

Obverse of P. Oxy XVI 1926. Image via Oxyrhynchus Online. The papyrus is now at the Sackler Library in Oxford, UK.

As written remains indicate, divination was not a practice confined to the elites. Everyone from the poor living in the Subura at Rome to the emperor living in his palace on the Palatine wanted to know their futures. What differed was the means by which one attained a prophecy. While Stannis Baratheon and Marius had the means to hire a personal prophetess to follow them around, other people consulted local oracles, used dice, or consulted books (probably from local libraries) for answers to their questions. As I have written about before, dream manuals such as that of Artemidorus’ were also a popular way to divine the future. 

A young Cersei visited a witch named Maggy on Game of Thrones.

What is perhaps more interesting than how people attained divinations is what people then chose to do with these prophecies. As we saw last night on the season premiere of Game of Thrones, after being told by her brother about the death of their daughter, Cersei realized that the prophecy she had been given by a witch when she was a teenager was coming true. Namely that she would have three children and that “gold will be their crowns” and “gold their shrouds.” Although Cersei now seems completely convinced that the vision of the witch will be fully realized, Jaime was not as convinced. He still believed in their ability to shape their own future. In his words, “Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate.” One wonders to what degree divined answers shaped the lives, thoughts, and motivations of everyday people, and how many times people simply rolled the dice a second time. As the witch tells young Cersei, “Everyone wants to know their future… until they know their future.”

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