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 gods or spirits, and they have generally had a significant role in religion.
Several seers mentioned in Greek myths were associated with Apollo . Mopsus (pronounced MOP-sus), a seer who took part in the quest for the Golden Fleece , was sometimes said to be a son of Apollo. The seer Laocoön (pronounced lay-OK-oh-ahn) was a priest of Apollo until he broke his vow by fathering children. He tried to warn the Trojans against accepting a gift—a giant wooden horse—given to them by their enemies, the Greeks, but the Trojans refused to listen to him. They brought the horse inside the city walls, and during the night, Greek soldiers hidden inside it overtook the city. Another Trojan, the princess Cassandra (pronounced kuh-SAN-druh), was given the ability to see the future by Apollo, who loved her; however, when she rejected the god, she was cursed so that no one would ever believe her prophecies. Although she predicted all the tragic events of the Trojan War, her family and friends believed her to be insane.
The best-known seer of Greek mythology was the blind prophet Tiresias (pronounced ty-REE-see-uhs). Several tales account for his blindness. One claims that he was struck blind as a boy when he saw the goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) bathing. Later, Athena felt sorry for Tiresias but could not restore his sight. Instead, she gave him the gift of prophecy and the ability to understand the language of the birds. In another myth, Tiresias came across two snakes mating. He killed the female snake and was transformed into a woman. Seven years later, he again saw two mating snakes; this time he killed the male snake and became a man. Because he had been both a man and a woman, Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the king of the gods, and his wife Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh) asked him to settle an argument: Which of the sexes enjoys love more? When Tiresias replied that man gives more pleasure than he receives, Hera struck him blind. To make up for this deed, Zeus gave Tiresias the ability to foresee the future and allowed him to live an extraordinarily long life.
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 Cathbad (pronounced KAH-bah), who advised King Conchobhar (pronounced KON-kvar) 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 (pronounced MEE-mir) guarded a sacred spring located at one of the three roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasill (pronounced IG-druh-sil). Odin (pronounced OH-din) 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 (pronounced FRAY-uh) 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.
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 (pronounced HYE-duh) of the Pacific Northwest, the spirit known as Lagua spoke through a shaman and taught the Haida how to use iron.
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—half human, half god—born from the thoughts of the god Brahma (pronounced BRAH-muh). Often, Hindu wise men are the teachers of kings or heroes. Although generally virtuous, some display pride or anger. One myth tells of Vishvamitra (pronounced vish-VAH-mi-truh), a proud seer whose standards were so high and whose demands were so great that he destroyed his king.
Seers in Context
Seers have used various techniques of divination, or trying to foretell the future. 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, or messages from the gods. Oracles, such as the famous oracle of Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh) at Delphi (pronounced DEL-fye) in ancient Greece, were often associated with a particular temple or shrine. They asked questions of the gods on behalf of worshippers 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 criticized religious practices and social conditions they believed were wrong.
Seers in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Seers have endured as characters in myths and stories in nearly every culture around the world. Perhaps the most well-known seer in modern times remains Nostradamus, a real-life chemist who published books filled with predictions in the sixteenth century. Seers usually appear in popular culture as fortune-tellers: In the 1985 film Pee Wee's Big Adventure, for example, the main character embarks on a journey to find a stolen bicycle using the words of a fortune-teller as his only guide. Several self-proclaimed modern seers and psychics have gained fame by touting their abilities to speak with the dead; they claim to use this supernatural connection to gain secret information and predict future events.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Seers were popular before the rise of science. In modern societies, has science eclipsed the role of seers totally, or do you think there are still areas of the unknown that justify the role of seers? What might those areas be, and why would a seer, rather than a scientist, be able to access them?