The ancient seer Atri is the most frequently mentioned seer in the Rgveda,
and his deeds are truly the stuff of legends. While we know little about his
actual life or his method of divination, the respect he received is obvious, as
he is mentioned at least forty-six times in the Rgveda. It is his
immortalization in the Rg, though, that will allow us to speculate on
both his life and his techniques
Atri himself is described as one of the ancestors of man (RV
i.39) and belonging to each of the five tribes (RV
i.117), which is somewhat resonant with the way the Celts thought of Druids,
who were said to cross borders unhindered. The fifth book of the RV is
attributed to the Atris (when pluralized, names in the RV indicate a
family descent), and most mentions of the name "Atri" are found in
that book. (MacDonnell, 145)
The Asvins once grant Atri youth when he is old (RV
x.134.1-2), indicating that "Ye freed that Atri like a horse, and brought him newly-born to earth."
Here, we find an interesting parallel with the Welsh Taliesin, a poet who
physically changes shape a number of times before being born anew. Atri is not
only a seer, but also a poet (or, as a Vedic poet, a singer of hymns), using the
power of poetry much like Taliesin does.
The Asvins are also said to save him from a burning chasm into which he has
fallen by giving him food that strengthens him and allows him to tolerate the
i.118.7). Atri sharpens Agni's blade with his prayer (RV
viii.62.9), Agni gives help to Atri (MacDonnell, 145), and Indra hears Atri's prayers (RV
viii.36.6). Atri also is said to have found the sun when it was hidden, and
placed the sun in the sky (RV
His name may be derived from the root ad, and cognate with atrin,
meaning that his name might mean "to eat" (MacDonnell, 145), which
would make sense given the main legend involving eating something from the
Asvins to prevent him from perishing in the burning chasm.
Focusing particularly on the locating and return of the sun to the heavens (RV
we can come to some conclusions about the process of divining used by Atri.
To locate the sun, Atri prayed:
By his fourth sacred prayer Atri discovered Surya concealed in gloom that stayed his function.
The Brahman Atri, as he set the press-stones, serving the Gods with praise and adoration, established in the heaven the eye of
Surya, and caused Svarbhanu's magic arts to vanish.
Here, it seems that Atri utilized the hymns of the Vedas in order
to determine the location of the sun (Surya). An entirely likely possibility is
that Atri repeated a prayer from the Vedas to put himself into a trance,
and in doing so was able to determine the location via visionquest or dreamquest.
Once he had found the sun, he removed the magics of the demon Svarbhanu by signing
hymns that would establish the Rta or cosmic order again. The vision that
Atri had of the location of the sun was completed by the vision Atri had of the Rta,
and it is said in the last line of that hymn, "This none besides had power to do."
It seems that the strength of the diviner, much as in other IE cultures, was
only complete with the strength of the poet in the same person.
We might also think of the tarbh feis in Ireland, where the poet is
wrapped in a bull's skin and given the raw flesh of a bull to eat. Atri is said
to be delivered by food in RV
i.118.7, and I cannot help but think of the "burning chasm" as
potentially similar to the fires if inspiration of Irish mythology, for the
fires are made agreeable to Atri (RV
i.112.7). One gets a sense of calm from Atri's predicament, where no matter
what happens, Atri knows he will be okay. One might think of him as "cool
under fire," for he knows the ways of the world.
A lot of Atri's seership appears to come from knowing the hymns of the Vedas
and also knowing Rta, though we could simply argue that knowing one means
that you know the other. The techniques of Atri are inextricably tied to his
knowledge of these things.
[this essay relies heavily on MacDonnell's work for the basics, but his
work is so thorough on the subject that one cannot help but borrow from him.]
Anonymous. Rgveda. Trans. Griffith, Ralph. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/>
MacDonnell, Arthur A. Vedic Mythology. Gordon Press. 1974