Prophecy is thought to be a divinely inspired vision or revelation of forthcoming events of such a magnitude that will possibly affect races, groups, or countries. Most, if not all, prophecies come from precognition, or knowledge of the future, but not all precognitive experiences are prophecies, the key difference being recognized as the divine spark or inspiration. Frequently, however, there is little or no distinction between prediction and prophecy.
In ancient primitive societies the shaman or wise woman was the prophet. It was difficult to say whether their ability was religious or magical. Some object to pronouncements of shamans being classified as true prophecy because the shamans often use spirits as aids, therefore, the pronouncements cannot be said to be divinely inspired; unless it is believed the divine works through the spirits. The same objection could be placed against all revelation gotten with the aid of alcohol, tobacco, or any hallucinogenic that aids the individual to enter an altered state of consciousness; such revelation is not divinely inspired. Although some might argue that such agents were divinely provided such purposes.
Ancient societies provide substantial evidence for the latter argument with examples that at the times of prophecies oracles, prophets, and prophetesses enter ecstatic trances thus allowing their deities to speak through them. The trances were produced by various methods such as inhaling smoke of certain woods or ingredients or drinking certain ingredients. The ancient Egyptians employed cult statues that gave off smoke. The Greeks relied on prophecies of oracles that uttered words, or resemblances of words under the influences of natural gases or drugs, considered to be unchangeable prophecies. The Romans relied on augurs, examiners of animal's organs, and flights and sounds of birds from which prophecies were drawn.
As societies became more sophisticated the prophet advanced from the shaman or wise man or woman, or the medicine man in some societies to groups of people, usually religious men belonging to a priesthood specializing in prophecy. In Assyria, for example, the prophetic class was the nabu, meaning "to call" or "announce," a name which was probably from the god Nabiu, the speaker or proclaimer of destiny, the tables of which he inscribed. Among the ancient Hebrews the prophet was called nabkia, a title probably barrowed from the Canaanites, which is not to say that the Hebrew nakiim were indebted to the surrounding people for their prophetic system that appears to be of a more loftier type than that of the Canaanites.
Prophets appear to have swarmed Palestine during the Biblical times. It seems that some four hundred prophets of Baal at Jezebel's table; and being prophets of this deity almost certifies they were priests also. The most celebrated prophets of Israel were in the northern part of the country, which was he most influenced by the Canaanites. Later prophetic societies formed, the chief reason being the preservation of nationality; and this class appears to have absorbed the older classes of magicians and seers for the purpose of assuming their official duties. However, to some extinct a few later prophets regained the positions of those earlier seers.
Micah, for example, rose to the stature of the prophets of Baal. Possibly with Amos it might be said a new school of prophecy commenced, the canonical prophet, who were also authors and historians, and who distanced themselves from mere professional prophets. The general idea in Hebrew Palestine was that Yahweh, or God, was in the closest possible touch with the prophets, and he would do nothing without revealing it to them. Therefore, the greatest importance was given to their utterances, which more than once determined the fate of the nation. Indeed no nation paid closer attention to the utterances of the prophetic class than that of the ancient Jews.
There is a sizable amount of Hebrew prophecy since eighteen of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament concern prophets and prophecies. Moses initially resisted the calling but eventually became an unequaled prophet performing mighty deeds. Some of these prophets had priestly functions, Samuel and Ezekiel, and Isaiah was a nobleman; others were members removed from church and state, and challenged both when the occasion arose.
In Islam, the prophet Muhammad received divine inspiration in order to renew the guidance given by prophets before him, including those in Judaism and Christianity. Muslims believe that prophets have guided all peoples throughout history; some estimate there have been some 240,000 prophets to the current period. Muslims believe Muhammad was chosen as the Seal of the Prophets, the last of all prophets for the rest of time. The Koran is the product of revelation given to him by an angel over a twenty-nine year period.
Joseph Smith, Jr., in 1823 became the prophet of Mormonism during an mystical experience in which he learned of an ancient book recorded by prophets and written on plates of gold by the prophet-historian Mormon. A series of revelations directed Smith to the plates, the book, known as The Book of Mormon, which with the King James version is used by The Church of Jesus Christ if the Latter-Day Saints.
Well-known prophets have been recognized throughout history such as Nostradamus, in the 16th century; Thomas the Rhymer, a Scot in the 13th century, who claimed the gift of prophecy was given to him by the Queen of Elfland; Odhar Coinneach, another Scottish prophet in the 16th century, who also claimed he received the gift of prophecy when fairies gave him a magic holed stone; Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) often called the "prophet's prophet," who left a legacy of over 14,000 trance readings; the American prophet Jeane Dixon who predicted the death of President John F. Kennedy.