Following on from our recent Numinous meet-up on the will of God, we will look at myths of seeking the Seer. Seers, prophets and shamans are common archetypal spiritual figures who promise us insight into what will happen to us, but as these myths show, they reveal the struggles of life as much as its joys.
Jehoash visits Elisha (from the Hebrew scriptures)
Formerly in Israel, if a man went to inquire of God, he would say, “Come, let us go to the seer,” because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.)
Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died. Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him. “My father! My father!” he cried. “The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” 15 Elisha said, “Get a bow and some arrows,” and he did so.
“Take the bow in your hands,” he said to the king of Israel. When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king’s hands. “Open the east window,” he said, and he opened it. “Shoot!” Elisha said, and he shot. “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!” Elisha declared. “You will completely destroy the Arameans at Aphek.” Then he said, “Take the arrows,” and the king took them. Elisha told him, “Strike the ground.” He struck it three times and stopped. The man of God was angry with him and said, “You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times.” Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.
1 Samuel 9:9; 2 Kings 13:10-25
Croesus, the King of Lydia, (560-547 BCE) sent to the great Oracle at Delphi to know whether he should go to war against the Persian Empire and the oracle replied: “If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire.” Pleased by this answer, Croesus made his necessary alliances and preparations and went out to meet the Persian army at the Halys River. The battle at the Halys was a draw and Croesus marched his force back to Sardis where the army was disbanded for the winter. Croesus expected Cyrus to do the same, as this was customary, but Cyrus instead pressed the attack, massacred Croesus’ cavalry in the field by mounting his own cavalry on camels (whose scent frightened the Lydian horses) and captured Croesus. After the fall of Sardis, Croesus’ wife committed suicide and Croesus was dragged before Cyrus in chains.
For daring to raise an army against the Persian Empire, Cyrus ordered Croesus to be burned alive along with fourteen noble Lydian youths. When Croesus saw the flames of the pyre lapping toward him, he called out for aid from Apollo to rescue him and a sudden rain shower broke overhead and put out the fire. Croesus was saved from burning to death but was still the captive of the Persian King and, remembering the words of Solon the Wise, cried out, “O Solon! Solon! Solon!” Cyrus asked a translator what this word meant and Croesus told the story of the wise man, Solon’s visit, how no man can be counted happy until after his death, and further, of how he was misled by the Oracle at Delphi who had told him that if he went to war against Cyrus he would ‘destroy a great empire’ and here the ‘great empire’ destroyed had been his own, not that of Cyrus.
Cyrus was so moved by this story that he ordered Croesus to be released and had him send to Delphi for an answer from the god as to why he was betrayed. The answer came back that the Oracle had spoken only truth – a great empire had, in fact, been destroyed by Croesus – and it was not the fault of the god if man misinterpreted his words. Cyrus felt sorry for Croesus and, kept him on as a wise counsellor.
Odin visits the Seer Mimir (Viking mythology)
Seeking wisdon, Odin turned and went toward Mimir’s Well. It was under the great root of Ygdrassil which grew out of Jötunheim. The seer, Mimir, the Guardian of the Well of Wisdom sat there with his deep eyes bent on the deep water. Mimir, who had drunk every day from the Well of Wisdom, knew who it was that stood before him.
“Hail, Odin, Eldest of the Gods,” he said.
Then Odin bowed to Mimir, the wisest of the world’s beings. “I want to drink from your well, Mimir,” he said.
“There is a price to be paid. Everyone who has come here to drink has been unwilling to pay that price. Will you, Eldest of the Gods, pay it?”
“I will not shrink from the price that has to be paid, Mimir,” said Odin.
“Then drink,” said Mimir. He filled up a great horn with water from the well and gave it to Odin.
Odin took the horn in both his hands and drank. As he drank all the future became clear to him. He saw all the sorrows and troubles that would fall upon Men and Gods. But he saw, too, why the sorrows and troubles had to fall, and he saw how they might be dealt with so that Gods and Men, by being noble in the days of sorrow and trouble, would leave in the world a force that one day, a day that was far off indeed, would destroy the evil that brought terror and sorrow and despair into the world.
Then when he had drunk out of the great horn that Mimir had given him, he put his hand to his face and he plucked out his right eye. The pain that Odin endured was terrible but he did not cry out. He bowed his head and put his cloak over his face, as Mimir took the eye and let it sink deep into the water of the Well of Wisdom. There the Eye of Odin stayed, shining up through the water, a sign to all who came to that place of the price that the Father of the Gods had paid for his wisdom.