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The Seer Calchas in Greek Mythology

Updated on March 19, 2016

Oracles and prophecies were an important part of life in Ancient Greece, and few important decisions were ever made without first consulting an Oracle. It is therefore no surprise that prophecies, and the seers that made the prophecies, appeared regularly in the ancient tales of Greek mythology.

Seers were particularly prominent in the tales of the Trojan War, where amongst the defenders of Troy were Cassandra and Helenus, and on the side of the Achaeans was Calchas.

The familyline of Calchas

Calchas was already a famous seer before the Torjan War, for he was the son of another seer, Thestor, and a great-grandson of the Greek god Apollo, a deity closely associated with prophecy. Prophetic ability ran throughout the family of Calchas, for as well as his father, his brother Theoclymenus was also a seer.

Calchas would gain the reputation of being the best diviner who made use of birdlife and other wildlife to predict events; and his reputation for accuracy when it came to events of the past, present and future was unsurpassed.

This reputation would see Agamemnon travel to Megara to recruit Calchas for the upcoming war, even before the Achaean ships had gathered at Aulis.

Calchas at Aulis

During the Trojan War, Calchas would prove to be as an important member of the Achaean forces as any named hero.

Some stories tell of how Calchas had already made a prediction about the winning of the war, even before the war had started; the seer prophesising that Troy would not fall unless the youthful Achilles was amongst the Achaean forces. This prediction would see Odysseus having to locate Achilles after Achilles mother, Thetis, had hidden her son away.

At Aulis, Calchas would predict that the war to take Troy would last ten years. The seer made this prediction after seeing a snake eat eight baby sparrows and their mother, before the snake was petrified. The fact that ten creatures were involved gave Calchas the ten years of his prediction.

The expedition to Troy did not get off to an auspicious start for ill winds were keeping the 1000 ships at anchor. Calchas would make the discovery that the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon, and the Greek seer would then have to proclaim that the only way of placating the goddess was to sacrifice Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. When the decision to sacrifice Iphigenia was finally agreed upon, it was then said that it was Calchas who was tasked with delivering the killing blow.

Calchas and the Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Calchas and the Sacrifice of Iphigenia
Calchas and the Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Calchas at Troy

Eventually, the Achaean fleet arrived at Troy, and whilst heroes fought outside of Troy, the role of Calchas remained prominent, and the seer was often consulted by Agamemnon about military and non-military decisions.

The role of counsel would often see Calchas in conflict with Agamemnon, and this was never more apparent than when Calchas had to tell of how the plague that was ravaging the Greek forces could be curtailed. Calchas proclaimed that the plague was a disease sent by Apollo in retribution for Agamemnon having taken Chryseis, the daughter of the priest of Apollo Chryses, as a prize.

Agamemnon became angry when Calchas told him that he would have to release his prize to lift the plague; but when Chryseis was released, the plague did immediately dissipate.

During the war, the Trojan seer Helenus would join the Achaean side, and attribution of further prophecies was given to both seers.

As a result Calchas is sometimes credited with predicting that for success at Troy, the bow and arrows would need to be used, a prediction which saw Odysseus and Diomedes dispatched to retrieve the weapons that had previously been left with the abandoned Philoctetes. Another prediction revolved around the use of the Wooden Horse to take Troy itself.

The Trojan Horse

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy - Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804) - PD-art-100
The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy - Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Death of Calchas

The death of Calchas was itself the object of a prophecy, although the details of the prophecy greatly depending on the ancient source being read. In general the prophecy stated that Calchas would die when he met a seer of greater ability than himself.

A common tale told of how after the fall of Troy, Calchas wondered through Asia Minor in the company of several others from the victorious Achaean force. At Colophon Calchas encountered another seer, Mopsus, in the grove of Apollo.

A contest between the two seers ensued, and when Clachas was unable to predict the number of figs on a fig tree, or the number of piglets a sow would give birth to, and with Mopsus getting both predictions correct, Calchas was said to have died of disappointment.

An alternate ending for Calchas sees him at Grynium rather than Colophon, when an unnamed seer told Calchas that he would not drink wine produced from the vines he had just planted. Grapes grew on the vines, and wine was produced, and Calchas was convinced that the prophecy made by the other seer was false. As he lifted his wine glass to his lips, Calchas started to laugh and promptly choked to death.

Comments

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  • Anne Harrison profile image

    Anne Harrison 

    2 years ago from Australia

    Your hubs are so informative, Colin - please keep them coming!

  • Mel Carriere profile image

    Mel Carriere 

    2 years ago from San Diego California

    The battle of the seers, fascinating. I love all this stuff about the Trojan war. Great hub!

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