Socrates and the Sortes Homericae

The Classical world knew various methods of determining the future, such as by observing the flight patterns of birds or—yet further away—by making note of the positions of the sun, moon, and planets (πλανῆται ‘wandering [stars]’ < πλανάομαι ‘be led astray’) relative to the fixed stars. There are plenty of interesting etymologies for more or less everyday English words that originated with these methods (auspicious, contemplate, disaster, desire, etc.), but they will best serve as the material for another day’s post.

One mantic (μαντικός) practice of the Greeks, which became so popular in the Roman world that we call it by its Latin name, was to draw a random line or section from Homer’s Iliad (later, from Vergil’s Aeneid, and yet later, from the Christian Scriptures) and interpret it in light of a particular problem or question at hand. The general procedure of drawing something at random from a collection of many somethings (with the hope that the gods will guide your selection) is called sortilege, Latin sortilegium, lit. ‘reading/drawing of the lots,’ where sorssortis ‘lot, fate, luck of the draw’ gives us Spanish suerte and Italian sorte, ‘luck,’ and French sort ‘destiny.’


The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Vol. XX)

We find an early example of predicting the future based on a line from Homer (Sortes Homericae) in Plato’s Crito. Socrates is sitting in his prison cell, awaiting execution. He astounds his visiting friend, Crito, by averring that his execution will take place in three days’ time. When asked how he could possibly possess this knowledge, Socrates reveals a dream that he just had:

ἐδόκει τίς μοι γυνὴ προσελθοῦσα καλὴ καὶ εὐειδής, λευκὰ ἱμάτια ἔχουσα, καλέσαι με καὶ εἰπεῖν·
“ἤματί κεν τριτάτῳ Φθίην ἐρίβωλον ἵκοιο.”

It seemed that some woman came—fair and good-looking, dressed in white—and called to me and said:
“On the third day you would reach fertile Phthia.” (Crito 44α–β)

Socrates reasons from this dreamed line of hexameter that he will not die today or tomorrow but on the day after tomorrow. As pointed out by Encyclopaedia Britannica above, the place-name Phthia (Φθίη) evokes the root of the noun φθίσις ‘decay, withering away’ and its related verb φθίω ‘decay, perish.’

Even though Socrates neither drew this line out of a hat nor pointed, blindfolded, at a papyrus, it serves as a good example for how some interpretative liberties may be taken with a line of verse in order to milk it for apparent meaning. Here is the original line—which happens to be a quote from a longer speech by Achilles—with some context:

εἰ δέ κεν εὐπλοίην δώῃ κλυτὸς ἐννοσίγαιος 362
ἤματί κε τριτάτῳ Φθίην ἐρίβωλον ἱκοίμην. 363
ἔστι δέ μοι μάλα πολλά, τὰ κάλλιπον ἐνθάδε ἔρρων. 364

If the glorious Earth-Shaker granted me pleasant sailing,
in three days (lit. on the third day) I could reach fertile Phthia.
I have very many things that I left behind when I came hither, to my ruin. (Il. 9.362-4)

This occurs in a longer section where Achilles announces that he essentially sees no reason to remain at Troy—disillusioned with Agamemnon’s leadership and not regarding Menelaus’ struggle for Helen to be worth losing his own life over—and that he will soon return to Phthia, his native land. In the Crito, Plato has played with the original line—turning ἱκοίμην ‘I might reach’ into ἵκοιο ‘you might reach’ (the verb is the aorist optative middle of ἱκάνω). This slight modification is made that does not disrupt the meter and uses all the same vocabulary, a trick frequently used by Homer himself.

In the original quote, Phthia explicitly represents the opposite of ‘destruction, ruin.’ (Even though Achilles would be forfeiting his eternal glory (κλέος) if he were to return home, for him Phthia means a safe, albeit humdrum, life, and eventual senescence.) Socrates—à la the sortes Homericae—intentionally takes the term out of context in order to render a meaning (equivalent to φθίσις) that is useful for his present situation. Likewise, the conditional meaning of the original line (with κε(ν) and an optative verb) does provide the future indicative sense that a straightforward prophecy should have; the dream-lady tells Socrates, “You would reach Phthia,” not “You will reach Phthia.” But these inconsistencies are minor. One searching for meaning in this particular sors Homerica need only take into account

  1. ἤματι τριτάτῳ ‘on the third day’
  2. the verb ἱκέσθαι ‘to reach, get to’
  3. Φθίη, a place-name reminiscent of words meaning ‘ruin’

to arrive at the intended conclusion: that Socrates will meet his undoing on the third day hence.