People who claimed special knowledge of the divine or supernatural realms have appeared in many myths, legends, folktales, and religious traditions. Those known as seers could see things hidden from others. They had the ability to predict the future or speak for the gods. Others with similar magical gifts have been called diviners, oracles, prophets, and shamans. They are said to have received special wisdom, power, or understanding from deities or spirits, and they have generally had a significant role in religion.
Seers have used various techniques of divination. In the ancient world, Babylonian*, Egyptian, and Greek seers often relied on the interpretation of dreams to predict the future, believing dreams to be messages or warnings from the gods. Seers and diviners also explained the significance of events thought to be omens. Oracles, such as the famous oracle of Apollo* at Delphi in ancient Greece, were often associated with a particular temple or shrine. They asked questions of the gods on behalf of worshipers or pilgrims and then gave the gods' answers.
Some seers, claiming to be divinely inspired, spoke on a wide range of issues. In the ancient Near East, prophets and diviners frequently became involved in politics. Hebrew prophets such as Samuel, Elijah, and Amos did not merely foretell the future. They also gave their views on religious practices and social conditions that they believed were wrong.
Several seers mentioned in Greek myths were associated with Apollo. Mopsus, a seer who took part in the quest for the Golden Fleece*, was sometimes said to be a son of Apollo. The seer Laocoon was a priest of Apollo until he broke his vow by fathering children. The best-known seer of Greek mythology was Tiresias, who had been blinded by the gods. According to some stories, Zeus* gave him the power of prophecy to make up for his loss of sight.
The Druids, priests of an ancient Celtic* religion, were said to be seers and magicians. Like the prophets of the ancient Near East, they sometimes held political power as advisers to rulers. The Druid Cathbadh, who advised King Conchobhar of Ulster in Ireland, foresaw the destruction of the kingdom. Druidic ceremonies of divination included human and animal sacrifice.
In Norse* mythology, the seer Mimir guarded a sacred spring at a root of the World Tree, Yggdrasill. Odin* gained magical knowledge by drinking from the spring, but he had to pay for it by giving one of his eyes to Mimir. The Norse goddess Freyja was also a seer. She introduced the gods to the type of divination called seid, which involved going into a trance and answering questions about the future.
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights
shaman person thought to possess spiritual and healing powers
deity god or goddess
divination act or practice of foretelling the future
omen sign of future events
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
The ceremonies described in Norse myths are similar to some of the rituals performed by traditional Siberian and Native American shamans. Shamans were believed to have the power to communicate with or travel to the spirit world. Generally, they did so for the purpose of healing rather than for predicting the future. Sometimes spirits spoke through shamans. According to the Haida of the Pacific Northwest of North America, the spirit Lagua used a shaman to teach them how to use iron.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
demigod one who is part human and part god
Hindu mythology includes many wise and holy men called seers or sages. They possess great spiritual power as a result of living pure and simple lives. A few seers are considered demigods, born from the thoughts of the god Brahma*. Often, Hindu wise men are the teachers of kings or heroes. Although generally virtuous, some display pride or anger. One myth tells of Visvamitra, a proud seer whose standards were so high and whose demands so great that he destroyed his king.