Prophecy Through the Ages: Society, Power and Legend
“Prophecy is an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty.” - Maimonides, Medieval philosopher
Legends and spiritual texts professing the divine powers of prophets have permeated cultures the world over since the dawn of society. The most prevalent associations with the idea of prophets originate from Judeo-Christian tradition dating back to as early as 4000 BC. But divination, prophecy and oracles are not unique to the Abrahamic religions. Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece dabbled in these mysterious customs. They existed also among early Buddhists in China and Tibet, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, European icons, and persist still in the 21st century.
A timeless subject of confusion and debate, prophecy has always had societal and psychological functions. Whether deeply-seated within halls of political power, or skirting the margins of society, the historic psycho-social powers of prophets are profound. Prophets have come to denote priesthood, religious or moral leaders claiming mystical discourse with the divine and facilitating communication between deities and their people. But what have these enigmatic characters and their supernatural practices truly looked like across the globe and throughout history?
Old Testament and Quran Prophets – 4000 BC and Onward
From the beginning, prophets and prophecy have been integral to the Abrahamic religions. Long before Jesus Christ prophesied his own death, Abraham himself, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike, was reportedly a prophet. Stories of Hebrew oral tradition debatably stem from roughly 4000 BC, but the Torah, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, did not exist in written word until millennia later.
Depiction of prophets at basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Nick Thompson / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Judeo-Christian belief is that the author of the Torah was Moses, a prophet. Muslims consider Muhammed to be God’s ultimate prophet among men. Believers hold many more Old Testament and Quran figures as prophets, and the most vital stories to these faiths typically involve divination.
Ecstatic and Classical Prophecy
Scholars group Abrahamic prophets into overlapping categories: pre-classical and classical, ecstatic and non-ecstatic. The ecstatic prophets were those whom Yahweh spiritually consumed in theatrical display. Ecstatic prophets include Israelites such as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, and such people held important positions in sanctuaries and monarchies. Detailed descriptions of the overwhelming spiritual immersions experienced by these prophets are lost to time, but artifacts of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan corroborate the presence of their cultic and political behaviors.
The Prophet Samuel as an old man (dun_deagh / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The pre-classical prophets include Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha, from the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, who had shrines and bore large groups of disciples. They made “if, then” warnings, hoping to guide according to God’s will and divine Law.
Classical prophecies also came later, in the books Isaiah through Malachi during the neo- Assyrian Empire’s takeover and after the collapse of Jerusalem (fifth-eighth centuries BC). Classical prophetic writings from Israel and Judah contain vivid apocalyptic premonitions. The prophets Zecheriah and Haggai narrated exile and crisis and call for the reconstruction of their sacred temple.
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What these distinctions have in common in Abrahamic history is socio-political influence. Yahweh communed with chosen individuals in dreams and visions as their cultures built up power and influence, tried to hold onto it, and succumbed to their successors. The ‘seers’ of these messages acted as divine vessels to common people and kings, establishing laws, endorsing holy wars, maintaining social and political order, bearing omens of exile, persecution, worship of pagan deities like Baal, and disintegration of God’s covenant with His people.
The Neo-Sumerian Empire: 23rd – 21st Centuries BC
Mesopotamia is the birthplace of human advancement, stretching as far back as 10,000 BC. Traces of divination practices of this region correlate with the Akkadian Empire and the Neo-Sumerian Empire, or the Third Dynasty of Ur (‘Ur III’). The Cuthean Legend and the ancient poem The Curse of Akkad tell of the fabled Akkadian ruler Naram-Sin, who declared himself a deity.
Victory Stele of Narim-Sin (Steven Zucker / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Despite his success as a ruler, the texts recount this god-king refusing the help of priests and fortune tellers during an invasion that eventually led to his downfall. The literature appears to bend the truth about historic events in order to reinforce the authority of diviners and spiritual leaders.
The kingdom of Akkad fell in 2198 BC, and the Gutian people took over until the Third Dynasty of Ur began in 2100 BC. Within this dynasty, Gudea, ensi (or ‘Lord’) of Lagash emerged as a new god-emperor. Gudea placed himself at the center of an organized, prophetic religion that some scholars believe is tied to the origins of Biblical literature.
The next king of Ur III was Shulgi. He declared his divinity to reinforce political authority, as his god-king cult extended through the temples of his empire. Cultic literature from this time period mirrors descriptions of Hebrew prophets, and describes Shulgi’s ascent into the afterlife, portraying him as a prototypical messiah figure.
Egyptian Prophetic Texts: 1991-1802 BC
The 12th Dynasty, or Middle Kingdom of Egypt contained prophetic practices comparable to contemporary Biblical writing. The five 12th Dynasty Egyptian prophetic texts are the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, the Dispute between a Man and His Ba, the Prophecies of Neferti, the Admonitions of Ipuwer , and the Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb .
Block statue of an Egyptian Prophet of Montu (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
Similarly to Classical Hebrew and Sumerian prophecies, these stories illustrate social and natural catastrophe, foretell redemption and a savior figure, and critique social, religious and political behaviors. Particularly from Neferti and Admonitions, these echoes of invasion, societal collapse and salvation at the hands of some demigod form a distinct pattern. All five texts resemble Hebrew tradition in their condemnation of theft, murder and family rivalries. Neferti goes further and critiques the government power structure.
The Egyptian texts are uniquely consistent in repeatedly predicting the reversal of social order. For example, Admonitions reads: “ See, the poor of the land has become rich; The man of property is a pauper” (8,2); Khakheperre-sonb witnesses that “Justice (mAat) is cast out; Evil (isft) is in the council hall” (11).
Motifs on reversal of the natural order loom over other surviving texts also, such as the Coffin Texts and The Book of the Dead . Biblical oracles emulate them only in the predictions of Isaiah and Ezekiel about Egypt itself (an obscured sun and the river drying up), which provides evidence of cultural interaction between the Hebrews and Egyptians.
Later Egyptian Prophecies: 3rd-2nd Centuries BC
There is also much later Egyptian oracle literature of the Greek-Roman period from 3rd-2nd centuries BC. The Oracle of the Lamb, the Oracle of the Potter, the Dream of Nektanbu, the Text of Tebtynis , and the Demotic Chronicle all concern themes of a creator demigod king and redeemer, one who will overcome chaos with order. The themes and literary patterns from this later oracle appear distinct, dissimilar from anything in Biblical prophecy.
Greek Oracles: 8th Century BC – 3rd Century AD
Homer’s classical epics of the 8th-7th centuries BC mention ancient Greek divination. Unlike Egyptian, Hebrew and Mesopotamian oracles who gained influence as religious scholars under individual religious and political institutions, Greek ‘seers’ were sovereign purveyors of oral wisdom. They controlled their own autonomous sanctuaries, where kings and democratic rulers would come to consult with the supernatural.
The Oracle of Delphi ( Mapics / Adobe Stock)
The renowned Oracle of Delphi famously advised authorities throughout Greece and beyond, notably Lykurgos and Agesipolis of Sparta, Ptolemy of Egypt, Philip II of Macedonia, Tarquin, Augustus, Nero, and Julian of Rome. This oracle spoke on matters of wars, alliances, plagues, marriages and laws. For Greeks, prophetic power not only influenced the dominant government, but extended far beyond the seer’s own culture.
Other prominent Greek oracles were the Oracle of Didyma, established to inform Alexander the Great’s relations with Macedonia and Persia. Greek oracular foreboding during war with Persia is comparable to Egyptian predictions about dynastic fate. Inscriptions in North Africa, Spain, Turkey, Croatia and Hadrian’s Wall in Britain recall the famed Clarian Oracle of Apollo who issued wisdom, possibly to Marcus Aurelius about the Antonine Plague during the 160s AD, or as late as 213 AD to Caracalla.
Medieval Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism: 200-600 AD
Some historians regard the chen-wei belief as a major social, political and social force of Medieval China. Before Buddhism came to China through India and the Western Regions during the Han (Eastern) and Jin (Western) dynasties of 1st-4th centuries AD, Confucianism and indigenous astrology, divination and magic rituals already existed.
The popularity of chen-wei, or ‘apocryphal prophecy’ followed, and evolved to serve the interests of respective thrones, historians, writers, and Confucian masters despite systematic bans. Chen-wei still legitimized dynastic transition, and its mystical ideas about destiny and otherworldly communication formed the foundations of Chinese religious and intellectual culture.
Chinese fortune telling and horoscopes remain important to this day ( tooratanaubol / Adobe Stock)
Tibetan Buddhists believe Buddha once prophesied that his doctrine would someday unite them. Similarly, Shenrap Miwo foresaw teaching of the Bön religion he founded in Tibet, according to followers who claim it to be Tibet’s indigenous faith. Tibetan divination is not exclusive to religious specialists or power structure. State oracles experience trance states that parallel the Hebrew ecstatic prophets and use of divination manuals, oracle beads and prophetic records is common among laypersons.
American Indigenous Divination: 8th-20th Centuries AD
Vision and dream interpretation is a central component of Native American spirituality that sometimes incorporates European beliefs and customs, but transcends the Judeo-Christian concept of prophecy. The religions of indigenous peoples of the Americas are numerous and diverse, belonging to more than 300 groups.
Native prophecy tends to focus on community and nature rather than individuals and in some cases has operated to resist missionization and preserve customs. In other cases, Christian concepts of sin, salvation, afterlife and communal values of non-violence and kindness have had beneficial influences. To many people, Native American prophecies represent resilience to colonial eradication of their culture, beliefs, values and spiritual ceremonies.
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Even in the absence of political elements in most of these rites, and spiritual leadership and transformation in the interest of community benefit is tantamount. ‘Prophet’ can apply to spiritual leaders and priests, but visionary and psychic experiences pervade. One example of Native divination is the Natchez Great Sun. The Sun symbolizes, among other things, spiritual communication. Natchez royalty and priest-guardians reserve the ability to ‘speak to the Spirit’ and intermediate celestial will to the people.
European Legends of Prophecy: 12th-16th Centuries AD
Two of the most recognizable embodiments of mysticism and prophecy are Merlin and Nostradamus.
Merlin is the mythical character from the legend of King Arthur who appears throughout Medieval European literature and folklore. In later stories, Merlin the wizard ascends into a sage and magically imparts Arthur’s birth, reflecting how such figures are historically embedded in royalty and government. Welsh legend recites Myrddin’s premonition of power transfer from the Saxons back to the Celts.
Merlin is perhaps England’s most famous soothsayer (Unknown author / Public domain )
French physician, astrologer and rumored clairvoyant Nostradamus lived from 1503-1566 and gained renown for treating the black death. It should be no surprise that someone like him would begin spinning ominous stories about future events. He published his book of prophecies, Centuries, in 1555. He wound his revelations into versed quatrains which are vague but still captivate minds in their eerie accuracy. Legend goes that in his prophecies he saw the French Revolution and even his own death.
Prophecy in the Modern Era
Although prophecy may seem like a concept out of antiquity, it survives in many forms to this day. Horoscopes, tarot card and palm readings have been absorbed into pop culture. And despite Biblical admonitions against false prophets, Christian personalities still emerge, claiming to know when Christ will return and when the world will end. In retrospect, these claims are not too different from prophetic claims throughout history.
In the late 19th century, supposed prophet Joseph Smith founded the Church of Latter Day Saints . The LDS (or ‘Mormon’) church still considers each sitting Church President a ‘Prophet.’ Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians have garnered broader modern acceptance for ‘spiritual gifts’ including prophecy. Likewise, popular US televangelists Pat Robertson and Kenneth Copeland continually embroil themselves in controversies. More darkly, a number of so-called prophets sprung up through the 20th century to lead deadly cults, such as the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh.
Belief in the validity of prophets, mystics, oracles and fortune-tellers is a matter of personal persuasion. Whether prophecies are genuine interactions with the beyond, or hoaxes which are simply clever, vague, and insightful enough about human nature and history that they can seem true, some ingredients of prophecy are undeniable. Since the beginning of time, prophecy has been a tool of both powerful and common people seeking reassurance and order in chaotic, frightening times, grasping to understand the unknown, the future.
Top image: Prophecy has had a strong influence since ancient times. Source: Rainer Fuhrmann / Adobe Stock.
By Mary Mount
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