Kim Beerden

Kim Beerden

From September 2012 onwards, I have been employed as a full-time lecturer in Ancient History at Leiden University. My main research interest is uncertainty about the future in the Greek world, in which context which my book Worlds full of signs: ancient Greek divination in context has been published by Brill in 2013 (see also below). A second research field I engage in is the history of food and foodways in antiquity. Both are vibrant fields of research. Uncertainty is a fantastic topic because it is so fundamental to the choices the ancient man-on-the-street faced and had to deal with. How to choose the right thing to do? A proposal for new research into ancient uncertainty is on its way.

I find that my teaching is as important as my research – the two strenghten one another. I am leading a project which provides didactic training to PhD students at Leiden and am actively integrating blended learning into my courses. I won the Leiden University Best Lecturer Award 2016.


K. Beerden, Worlds full of signs: ancient Greek divination in context (Brill: Leiden 2013)

Worlds full of signs
Worlds full of signs

 ISBN: 9789004252394 Ebook: 9789004256309

This book, a revised version of my dissertation which was defended at Leiden University (2013), is a systematic study of the religious phenomenon ‘divination’ in the ancient Greek world. This goal is accomplished by the use of an etic approach and the comparative method, focusing on three units of comparison: Greece until the end of the Hellenistic period, Republican Rome and Neo-Assyrian Mesopotamia. What was specific about ancient Greek divination and how may this be explained? I will here provide a brief outline of the book and mention some of the choices I have made.

A historiography and definition of divination, as well as a methodological foundation, are provided in Part I (chapters 1-3). In Part II (chapters 4-6), the comparative method is used as a heuristic tool in order to show differences and similarities in the three elements of divination (homo divinans, sign and text) as defined in Part I. Part III (chapters 7-8) discuss the main function of divination: to gain knowledge about past, present and future and thus reduce uncertainty.

Part I: introduction to ancient divination

A true wave of books on divination are appearing at the moment (e.g., Johnston, Eidinow, Raphaels, an edited volume by Rosenberger) and I am sure there will be more. This book distinguishes itself by its approach and method. In line with its etic approach, divination is defined as a human phenomenon: humans conceive something in the world around them to be a sign which they perceive to have come from the supernatural. They then interpret the sign and assign it a meaning, hoping that this meaning will provide information about past, present and future. The method of comparison is used not in order to provide an overview of ‘how divination was’ but to consider aspects of Greek divination in relation to other practices. It seeks no “[. . .] analytic disclosure in toto [. . .]. Instead, each case presents [. . .] a partial coherence among its metaphors and analogies that may tell us something new, interesting, and even theoretically important.” (p. 2, quote from F.J.P. Poole, ‘Metaphors and maps: towards comparison in the anthropology of religion’, JAAR 54 (1986) 411–457, at 433)

Part II: elements of ancient divination           

In theory, everyone could perform divination and anyone could be a homo divinans. However, in many cases experts were needed. A comparison is made of the socio-economic status of focus on the Greek mantis; the Mesopotamian upšarru Enūma Anu Enlil and bārû; and the Roman augur, decemvir and haruspex: enough knowledge about their background and career has been passed down to be able to make a systematic comparison. The comparison shows as specific traits of Greek divination: a relatively low degree of institutionalization of the Greek mantis whereas competition was rife, clients chose their experts, depended on them (although they did not make the final decision) and individuals could gain fame.

The Greek homo divinans appears as relatively important in the divinatory process as he needed to select and consider the sign for what it was (and this leaves more room for suspicion towards him) while it can be argued that the Roman and Mesopotamian sign a was perceived as more ‘objective’. Texts that were used for interpretation – leaving less room for improvisation by the expert – only support this idea, especially for Mesopotamia. A Greek oral divinatory culture leads to a divinatory practice based on choice: a human ‘produces’ the sign, chooses by which (oral) text it is interpreted and an expert can be selected where deemed necessary.

Part III: function of ancient divination

Time and ideas about reduction of uncertainty (I reject the use of risk for the ancient world (contra Eidinow) as unhelpful) are intricately connected to the functions of divination in the three units of comparison. The scope in time of Mesopotamian divination appears larger, whereas Greek and Roman divination are concerned with the immediate present, and close past and future. Mesopotamian divination appears as more predictive, where advice is prominent in Greek divination. In both cases, the future could still be changed but the Greek future appears to consist of a number of possible roads from which man could choose (taking the advice from the supernatural into account) – in contrast to the one path of the Mesopotamian future.

So what can we say about Greek divination?

In the course of this study, Greek divination has appeared as a flexible tool to deal with a flexible future. The flexibility is visible on a number of levels: individuals chose to consult the supernatural or recognize a supernatural sign as such; during interpretation an individual could choose to consult an expert (and which one) or not; the expert had relatively much room for a flexible interpretation due to a lack of texts; the supernatural gave a non-binding advice after which the individual had to make his own choice. The Greek future was flexible and open (but not empty). The Greek individual had many choices throughout the divinatory process.

The relative low degree of divinatory institutionalization plays a central role in this flexibility. Perhaps theoretical ideas about isonomia could help to explain this feature: divination had to be accessible to as many people as possible.

June 2014

last update March 2018

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