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Friday essay: secrets of the Delphic Oracle and how it speaks to us today

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the wisdom of the oracle was dispensed. Janet Lackey/flickr, CC BY-NC

Friday essay: secrets of the Delphic Oracle and how it speaks to us today

Imagine a place to go in times of doubt and uncertainty, where one can find out what to do and what to avoid, straight from a reliable source. A place where all questions have tangible answers and all problems a solution.

Unfortunately, such a place does not exist today. But did it once?

In the ancient world, oracles such as the one at Delphi famously promised to reveal the past, present and future. They were the apex of a sizeable pyramid of institutions and individuals dealing in futures (of the non-economic kind), which also included itinerant seers and personal oracle collections.

Yet Delphi and its like rarely provided simple answers. Take the famous example of King Croesus of Lydia. Croesus asked at Delphi whether he should wage war against the Persians. He was told that he would destroy a great empire.

Taking the response to predict victory, he launched a military confrontation with Xerxes, Persia’s mighty king. Croesus did end up destroying an empire – his own.

This example is by no means unique. The ancient historian Herodotus, who reports it in The Histories, cites many similar stories of prediction and fulfilment. And the picture does not look much different in many other ancient reports of Delphic prophecies.

More often than not, it seems, those drawing on the gods to know the unknowable did not receive a straightforward answer. Instead, they faced a new question: did they understand the real meaning of the prophecy?

A voice of authority

In the ancient world, the Delphic Oracle was the highest religious authority. Nestled on Mount Parnassus in Phocis in central Greece, the oracle was open for business once a month except during winter.

Veduta Of Delphi, With A Sacrificial Procession by Claude Lorrain, (1645). Wikimedia Commons

At the core of the oracle’s operations was a priestess, the Pythia, who delivered the responses directly to the enquirer from the inner sanctum of Apollo’s temple. She was considered a mouthpiece of the omniscient god of prophecy.

On consultation day, people flocked to Delphi to enquire about an eclectic mix of concerns: politics and warfare, of course, but also religion, health, lovesickness and offspring – to name just a few issues.

The Priestess of Delphi by John Collier, 1891. Wikimedia Commons

Among those consulting the oracle were some of the most (in)famous and illustrious individuals of the ancient world. Socrates’ friend Chaerephon enquired whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. Apparently he was told that no-one was.

Yet what did this really mean – that Socrates was indeed the wisest person in the world or that there was someone equally knowledgeable? Another predictable question is the one Cicero asked: how to become famous.

The neurotic Roman emperor Nero, meanwhile, tried to learn the timing of his own death from the Delphic oracle. He was told to “beware of the 73rd year” and so considered himself safe, but was murdered shortly after by Galba who was – you guessed it – 73 years old.

Alexander the Great did not even get to ask a question, arriving at the oracle on a day it was closed. The Pythia declined to deliver prophecies. Yet “no” was never an option for Alexander.

When he tried to drag the priestess into the temple by force, she cried, “You are invincible, youth!” – whereupon Alexander turned around and left. He had the prediction he wanted.

Everyone, it seems, got the oracle they deserved. The questions asked at Delphi and at the numerous other oracular centres of the ancient world reveal as much about the enquirer as the capacity of the Pythia to anticipate past, present and future events.

How did it work?

How did the Pythia deliver the prophecies? Modern visitors to the oracle are obsessed by the question. Surely there is a secret to be revealed? A mystery to be uncovered? Or at least a clever trick to be unmasked?

Interestingly, the ancients themselves seemed entirely oblivious to the “how”. They did not ask – let alone answer it for us in any satisfying way.

King Aegeus consults the Pythia, who is seated. Attic red-figure kylix, 440–430 BC. Wikimedia Commons

Was the answer obvious to them? Or was this, perhaps, a religious secret not to be discussed? Whatever the case, for years, the theory that the Pythia was “inspired” by vapours emerging from the ground has fascinated present-day visitors of the ancient oracle.

This theory, based on late, unreliable and misunderstood evidence, has once again been reignited by new geological research in the area of Delphi demonstrating the presence of light hydrocarbon gases, which are known to have hallucinogenic effects. The mystery lives on – as do the vapours.

One thing, however, is clear as soon as one considers the prophecies themselves. The oracles that have come down to us – around 600 questions and answers from Delphi preserved in a wide range of historical and literary texts and in the form of inscriptions – are not the result of some drug-induced state of mind. Most likely they are the product of oral tradition spun around events that may or may not have really happened at Delphi and elsewhere.

As a result, many oracles are like poetry in the often astonishing and exhilarating ways their central images and metaphors always and invariably find a specific referent in the world: figurative and concrete, allusive and illusive.

Phalanthus of Sparta, for example, received a prediction that he would win both a city and a territory “when rain falls from cloudless sky”. After several failed attempts to take a city, he remembered the oracle. Surely it was impossible for him ever to win military success – just as unlikely as for rain to fall from clear sky.

Wikimedia Commons

In despair, he laid his head in his wife’s lap and bemoaned his fate. His wife, however, felt such sympathy for her husband that she started to cry.

Her name, we learn, was Aethra (ancient Greek for “clear sky”) and her tears the drops of rain that fell seemingly out of the blue. The same night Phalanthus sacked the city of Tarentum in southern Italy.

The real and the imaginary

Oracles like this one typically feature paradoxes, metaphors and images that are also the heart of poetic language. The reading of these prophecies, then, requires extraordinary diligence, a special sense for words and their meaning, and the willingness and capacity to look at the world in new and creative ways.

The exiled king Arcesilaus enquired at Delphi about the possibility of returning to Cyrene. The oracle foretold that his family would remain in power for eight generations, but added a personal message to the king:

As for yourself, when you return to your country, be gentle. If you find the oven full of jars, do not bake them but send them off with the wind. But if you do heat the oven, enter not the land surrounded by water, for otherwise you will die, and the best of the bulls with you.

After his return to Cyrene, Arcesilaus took great care to sidestep the prophecy but readily took revenge on his adversaries. When some of them fled into a tower, he had wood stacked around it and set it on fire. Too late he registered that in doing so he had “heated the oven full of jars”. Arcesilaus died soon after in the coastal town of Barca.

Some oracles and the accounts told about them are not authentic. The Pythia cannot possibly have predicted the events leading up to Arcesilaus’ death. Yet this does not mean we can simply dismiss this evidence as the stuff of literary fiction.

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia by Eugene Delacroix, 1835/1845.

Questions of authenticity are relevant to the social and political histories of the ancient world and the role of oracles within them. The cultural historian and historians of religions also want to know: What kind of questions did the ancients put to the oracle, real or imaginary? How far into the future did they look? And what religious beliefs, insights and general truths are contained in the stories told about the oracle?

For the ancients, Delphi was as much a place of the real as the imaginary. It was a site to which one could travel and ask questions. But it was also – perhaps even more so – an imaginary site around which meaningful religious narratives could be spun.

Remains of the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Wikimedia Commons

The evidence from another oracular site confirms this. At the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona, enquirers at the oracle wrote their questions onto lead tablets, which were then folded and submitted to the sanctuary. Hundreds of these tablets have been found, giving very good insight into the questions asked at that oracle:

Did Dorkilos steal the cloth?

God. Gerioton asks Zeus concerning a wife whether it is better for him to take one.

Cleotas asks Zeus and Dione if it is better and profitable for him to keep sheep.

And, somewhat more sensitively:

Lysanias asks Zeus Naios and Deona whether the child is not from him with which Annyla is pregnant.

In their straightforwardness, these questions resemble those oracles from Delphi that were inscribed in stone right after the consultation and so less likely to be subject to embellishment. Taken together, this evidence illustrates that in the main very simple questions were asked at oracles – relegating the elaborate tales of prediction and fulfilment to the realm of the imaginary.

Note also that to answer these questions does not require great predictive capacities. Good common sense and, perhaps, some insight is all that’s needed. Nor do these questions really concern the deep future: mostly they reflect simple concerns of the day to day.

Delphi’s modern legacy

Unfortunately, the Delphic oracle is no longer in business – at least, not of the oracular kind. In 390/1 CE the Roman emperor Theodosius I closed it down in a bid to end pagan cults. However, the excavated site is now a booming tourist destination and well worth the visit.

Altar of Apollo. Andy Hay/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Every time has its own oracles. The legacy of Delphi lies not so much in fortune-tellers, soothsayers and horoscopes: the central and authoritative role of the oracle in the ancient world is reflected in more serious ways we try to anticipate the future.

We have an enduring desire to enquire into what is beyond the here and now, which manifests in our – frequently futile – attempts to control what comes next.

Economic forecasts try to model future expectations based on past experiences, but – much like ambiguous oracles – they are usually vague enough to allow for a way out if things go wrong: past returns do not indicate future gains…

A modern oracle? Jeffrey L. Cohen/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Google and other search engines invoke the idea that the entire, collective knowledge of humanity – everything that can possibly be known – is only a few clicks away. This is, of course, mere illusion. As with the ancient oracles, answers provided in this way are only ever as good as the question asked.

Finally, the language in which many politicians cloak promises of events to come is directly reminiscent of the metaphors and ambiguities of many Delphic responses. The example of Croesus’ “great empire that will be destroyed” seems uncomfortably apposite in light of modern-day conflicts and international politics.

Know thyself!

Given that the oracular is still very much alive we may wonder how Delphi still speaks to us today, which insights remain relevant and what kind of knowledge stands the test of time.

The ancients themselves asked the oracle that last question. Both Croesus of Lydia and Chilon of Sparta enquired at Delphi about what was best to know. Both received a response saying that to “know thyself” (gnōthi seauton) was best.

Know thyself! In many ways this is the tag line of the Delphic brand. The motto was inscribed into the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, clearly visible to those wishing to consult the oracle.

Head of Nero (reign 54–68 CE). After 64 BC. Wikimedia Commons

It is also the implicit moral message of many accounts of oracle consultations recounting the (frequently unhappy) consequences of misinterpreting the oracle’s words. Overconfidence ends in downfall. If only Croesus had looked beyond his own circumstances… If only Nero had considered the world in more complex terms…

Oracles did not provide simple answers to simple questions – nor do their modern counterparts. Rather, all attempts to look into the future provide the incentive for us to examine our own expectations, to confront our own desires and our own ways of make-believe.

If we rise to the challenge we find more often than not that things are different from how they first appear. Delphi continues to remind those of us prepared to listen that, to be successful in the world, we must consider other realities which may look very different from our own.



Have you ever been to “Delphi”? If not, check out the online Homeromanteion.

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