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22.01.16 Wiśniewski, Christian Divination in Late Antiquity

22.01.16 Wiśniewski, Christian Divination in Late Antiquity

Christians were not supposed to inquire into the future, and they certainly were not supposed to use the methods and cult sites non-Christians had devised for such purposes: this much was clear from the teachings of late antique Christian authorities. Nevertheless, Christians were anxious about the future, fretted about their life choices and harboured hopes and ambitions. Some of them undoubtedly managed to do without inquiring into hidden things, and some of them demonstrably resorted to the old oracles and divinatory practices. But some, as Robert Wiśniewski demonstrates in this book, devised specifically Christian methods of satisfying their curiosity about the future or their anxiety about their choices. This is a well-written book that usefully discusses a variety of techniques and practices of probing into hidden knowledge, and importantly draws attention to the Christian rationales behind them.

Wiśniewski calls these practices Christian divination. This means that his focus is not on Christian use of pre-Christian divination, and he also rules out practices such as numerology and astrology, since they, arguably, were not religious in character. He is critical of interpretations that would see Christian methods of foretelling the future as direct continuations of pre-Christian divination. Instead, he demonstrates the ideas and practices that legitimated such methods at least for some Christians. In addition to the practices, Wiśniewski is also interested in uncovering who used them.

As the author acknowledges, this is a challenging topic. The evidence is scattered and unevenly distributed over the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, books and other objects offer evidence of Christians engaging in prognostication, while authoritative Christian literature is either silent about it or comments on it negatively. After an introduction briefly touching upon these issues, Wiśniewski in his first chapter turns to assess attitudes to divination. He argues that Christian writers criticised divination primarily due to its associations with pagan cult practices and because it ultimately meant contact with demons. However, Christian opposition to divination went deeper. Wiśniewski notes that divination and astrology were both criticised as succumbing to fatalism. More importantly, authors such as Origen and John Chrysostom explained that while the Old Testament shows the Jews consulting prophets even on worldly matters, Christians now had all the information they truly needed and should not care about worldly issues. To ask for such knowledge was inappropriate curiosity.

The second chapter probes prophets and prophecy, especially the practice of consulting Christian holy men for hidden knowledge. Here, as with many of the other issues discussed, it is easier to show that Christians considered that something could have happened than it is to demonstrate that it also took place. Wiśniewski is not content with the former and is sceptical of hagiographical portrayals of saints as prophets. He deems some narratives, such as saints predicting natural disasters or wars, as clearly fictional (63-4). It may well be that such things did not take place, but his discussion disregards the possibility that the saints were believed to be able to do such things. If such prophetic powers were a part of models of sainthood, those regarded as living saints or perhaps aspiring to be regarded as such may have tried to act accordingly. [1] It is thus not impossible that a holy man really did utter a prophecy that was after the fact interpreted to have correctly predicted a natural disaster. It is not quite clear why the author makes such a point about the narratives here, as he is later (89) quite happy accept them as reflecting beliefs. Wiśniewski nevertheless concludes that consulting holy men for hidden knowledge seems to have happened occasionally, mainly in the East, although many Christian authorities seem to have disapproved of it. He perceptively points out that asking monks questions such as one also could pose to pagan oracles, for example, “will I die soon,” was on the same continuum with asking monks for spiritual advice. Through their special connection with God, holy men were believed to have hidden knowledge. Finally, he argues that this Christian prophecy, which did not involve the loss of consciousness or cognitive control, did not derive from similar pagan practices, but represents a parallel development.

The third and fourth chapters examine the use of books in divination. The third chapter focuses on the divinatory uses of books, chiefly, biblical books, not specifically meant to be used in such ways. There is good and famous evidence of Christians opening a book and taking a biblical verse found at random as life-changing advice: Wiśniewski titles the chapter after Augustine’s narrative of how he heard children chanting “take up and read,” and then opened a codex of the Pauline epistles and found the exhortation to give up all fleshly desires (Rm. 13:13-14). He argues that there is no good evidence of similar pagan or Jewish practices and observes that this technique depended on the codex format and cannot thus be older that the adoption of that format by the Christians. He notes that opening a biblical book at random seems to have been practiced mainly for comfort and general understanding and argues that its sacred nature legitimated such random consultation.

The fourth chapter investigates manuals specifically written for divinatory purposes. Many of these, which not only are found condemned in Gallican church councils but also survive in early medieval manuscripts, seem to be Christianised versions of earlier similar pagan oracles. These, such as the Sortes sanctorum or the Sortes Sangallenses, were consulted by choosing a question from a list, throwing three dice, and finding the answer corresponding to the question and the resulting sequence of numbers. Pre-Christian versions of these oracles were probably originally found engraved in stone at cult sites, and similarly accessed through throwing bones with numbered sides. The texts used by Christians were thinly Christianised, by adding exhortations to prayer before consultation, and by replacing the names of pagan deities with Christian names. The councils condemning the Sortes sanctorum were concerned about their use by the clergy, and Wiśniewski argues that since the clergy were more likely literate and acknowledged ritual specialists, it seems probable that they would have been most likely to use these oracular books. He plausibly identifies the reason for the condemnation in the fact that these oracles were all fatalistic, as their answers concerned processes over which the individual had no control. They were not consulted for advice with life choices but for information about the future.

In the fourth chapter Wiśniewski also investigates the hermēneiai, oracular answers written into the margins of certain biblical books. He argues that they would have been used by choosing one of the answers at random, and the fact that they had been inscribed in a sacred object (the biblical book) would ensure that they were meaningful. But the hermēneiai are particularly difficult material, and inferring if they were used and by whom, is not easy from the surviving evidence. They have been added by later users to some codices, such as the famous Codex Bezae, possibly by scribes interested in using the book for divination. But, like other marginalia in authoritative books, they could also be copied with the main text because they were there in the exemplar: sometimes they might be mistaken for integral parts of the main text, but unlike Wiśniewski contends (142), this certainly does not prove that such a manuscript was prepared with view to its use in divination.

In the fifth chapter Wiśniewski looks at the casting of lots for divinatory purposes. The state of evidence for this practice is illustrative for most discussed in this book. Wiśniewski presents one literary testimony, from Gregory of Tours, and discusses extant oracular lots from Egypt. Against previous research which sees Christian lot-oracles as a continuation of pre-Christian practices, Wiśniewski is sceptical. He observes that these is some evidence that this method was used by clerics, although the Christian authorities viewed it negatively. He argues that sains’ shrines and casting lots in the presence of relics were crucial for the Christian legitimation of this method.

The sixth chapter is about interrogating demoniacs. Here a large part of the investigation concerns the definition of demoniacs, which obviously was a matter of perspective. Wiśniewski is less interested in prophets or prophetesses that Christian authorities might criticise as possessed, than in the extent to which the possessed brought to churches might be consulted for hidden knowledge. What he uncovers seems less a practice with established forms than a relatively widely shared conviction that demons could have knowledge, which compelled people in different places to try to consult demoniacs.

The seventh chapter is about incubation, the practice of seeking an oracular dream while sleeping in a sanctuary. Against what is commonly assumed, Wiśniewski argues that Christian incubation does not derive directly from pre-Christian practices: not only does he deem evidence of continuity of incubation shrines lacking, he points out that elements of Christian thought, such as the belief that the holy dead cared for the affairs of the living, and a general conviction that dreams could be divine communication, were crucial prerequisites for the development of the practice. Generally, it seems that it is easier to demonstrate that individual Christians sought meaningful dreams by sleeping near to the relics of the saints, than that there were Christian institutions offering incubation. Wiśniewski notes that while it seems there was regular incubation at only a handful of saints’ shrines mainly in the East, it is probable that Christians who believed in it might well have resorted to it at other shrines as well.

Dreams were of course seen as suspicious, although potentially true. Wiśniewski argues that dreaming at a saint’s shrine guaranteed that the dream was divine and not demonic. This may have been a common view, although Gregory of Tours for instance also warns of demonic apparitions at shrines. Wiśniewski asserts (211) that one of the ways in which Christian incubation differed from pre-Christian practices was that the sleeping happened in the “sacred space.” But in many cases, it seems obvious that the dreaming took place in a space attached to the church, or in a portico, and at others it is altogether unclear whether the dream “the following night” took place anywhere near the shrine. Finally, it is questionable in what sense this seeking of dreams at shrines can be called divination, since by far most of the cases depicted in the sources involve supplicants in search of healing. This is surely the reason that incubation was not discussed when Christian authorities wrote about dreams and their interpretation, as the author himself notes (254).

In this book, Wiśniewski discusses a good variety of techniques and practices inventively and carefully, and tries to identify the users, the popularity and the attitudes towards each practice, but the difficulties of the source material mean that these in many cases remain vague. Other phenomena could have been fruitfully discussed as well. Given that Christian authorities criticised both divination and astrology on the same grounds, as embracing an unchristian fatalism, Wiśniewski’s decision not to discuss astrology is questionable, although understandable as a work-economic choice. Although astrology may not have been religious, Christians certainly produced religious arguments against it, and as the author also points out, later attempts were made to Christianise astrology. The underlying principles of astrology and numerological divination also seem to have affinities with the conceivable principles underlying some of the divinatory techniques Wiśniewski discusses. The sortes for instance seem to similarly imply the existence of a (hidden) divinely instituted order of the world, and lunaries, mentioned here in passing, impute meaning to the natural order of the heavens similarly to how astrology does. These similarities would merit considering Christian responses to and uses of divination and astrology together.

The book is light on theory, and discussions with existing literature are kept to a minimum. Some of the central concepts used, such as, in the first place, divination, would have benefitted from some reflection. Discussing all these practices as divination may help in conducting comparative studies of ancient divination or in discussing possible continuities from pre-Christian divination. However, Wiśniewski in many individual cases in fact convincingly argues against such continuities. At the same time this usage tends to obscure the fact that those practices that seem to have enjoyed the widest acceptance, such as consulting holy books at random or sleeping at the shrines of saints, succeeded to the extent they did precisely because they managed to look like they were not instances of divinatio but entirely Christian. In comparison, practices such as the books of sortes were both clearly disapproved of at least by some Christian leaders and at the same time manifest continuities of pre-Christian practices.

Although I have found reason to criticise some of the author’s choices and interpretations, I recommend this book not just to scholars of late antique religion, but more widely to students and researchers of medieval Christianity and medieval prognostication. A history of prognostication and inquiry into hidden knowledge teaches us about the hopes, fears and afflictions of believers and the ways in which they tried to manage them, and the ways in which Christian authorities, not just those authoring influential texts but also others administering saints’ shrines and providing pastoral care, were prepared to meet them. For students of the middle ages the book is a welcome reminder that many of the medieval practices that used to be and sometimes still are discussed as “pagan survivals” were in fact already a part of Christian culture in late antiquity and were the result of active elaboration of Christian ideas to answer the kinds of needs ancient divination had covered. Wiśniewski rightly draws attention for instance to the cult of saints and their relics as a major factor in accommodating many of these practices: relics lent credibility to the dreams dreamt and the lots drawn near them. He also usefully distinguishes between the popularity of a practice and attitudes towards it. Even the sortes so clearly proscribed in church councils are known because they survive in early medieval manuscripts. This suggests they may have continued to find users, although their contents in many cases tied them to the vanished world of ancient cities and imperial politics.



1. Jacques Fontaine in Sulpice Sévère, Vie de Saint Martin, ed. J. Fontaine, Sources Chrétiennes 133 (Paris, 1967), 186–188; Clare Stancliffe, St Martin and his Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus (Oxford, 1983), 167 and 196–202.

2. Gregory of Tours, Libri IV de virtutibus S. Martini, ed. B. Krusch, MGH SSrM 1.2, (2nd ed., Hanover, 1969), c. II.18, 165.