Some comments on a book about the Oracle of Delphi

Hi there, Herodoteans,

You may recall from my previous emails how amazed I am by the Oracle(s) at Delphi and what they were able to achieve — spiritually, culturally, politically, and economically — despite possessing no state, no military, and no key geographies.

To learn a little more about this I read a book called The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science behind its Lost Secrets, by William Broad.  However amazed I was before, I’m even more amazed now.  Delphi’s influence lasted for more than 1,000 years, and was in many ways bigger than I thought.

The book is well written, has a gripping plot, and is easy to get through (<240 pages with pretty wide margins).  I recommend it if you’re interested in the topic.

During a fit of jet-lag induced sleeplessness, I decided to write up some notes about it and add them to my Herodotus page, which is here.

A couple of tidbits:
•    A few comments about the mechanics of the institution
    •    The Oracles were women chosen from among the citizens of Delphi.
    •    Originally they had to be young virgins, but after one Oracle was raped, the decision was made to choose 50+ year olds instead
    •    These women were thought of as people with ordinary powers through whom Apollo spoke.
    •    To be an Oracle at Delphi was among the highest status jobs a Hellenic woman could have.
    •    The job came with plenty of perks, including front row seats at the theater.

•    The Oracles answered questions one day per month, 9 months per year
    •    They answered questions on the 7th day of the month — a day thought sacred to Apollo.
    •    They did not work during the winter.  Hale and De Boer believe this is because they hydrocarbon vapors depended on heat to evaporate.  This phenomenon is seen in some other hydrocarbon vents around the world.
    •    (During the winter Delphi’s focus became not Apollo, but Dionysus, and all sorts of orgiastic revelry took place there.)
    •    To put a question to the Oracle, you had to pay a nominal fee and sacrifice an animal.  A goat was the preferred sacrifice.  The omens from the sacrifice (e.g. condition of the liver; shaking of the ankles after water was poured on the goat) had to be just right, or you weren’t allowed to see the Oracle.
    •    The order of questioners was determined by the drawing of lots, though major patrons of the institution (e.g. Croesus) could get priority.
    •    You were allowed to ask one single question of the Oracle.  You’d ask the question to a priest, who would then ask the Oracle.  There is some debate as to whether you’d hear back directly from the Oracle or via the priest, but increasingly it seems the consensus is that you’d hear back directly from the Oracle.

•    How the Oracles answered
    •    The Oracle sometimes spoke in verse, but as time went on more frequently spoke in prose.
    •    The Oracle answered lots of personal questions — e.g. should my son get married now or wait? — but was relatively unique in the Hellenic world for also being relied on for major questions involving state policy.
    •    Historian Catherine Morgan argues that the oracles gave more precise answers in the first few centuries than they did in the last several.  She speculates that the prophecy given to Croesus — “you will destroy a great empire” — was a turning point in the Oracle’s approach, from more specific to more ambiguous
• The  philosophy of the Oracles

    •    The Oracles tended to espouse an ethical philosophy that was radical at the time, and compared to prevailing mores, relatively humanistic and liberal
    •    The Oracles tended to stress the importance of intention — not just outcome — in determining guilt.  Unlike many Greeks at the time, they considered it morally worse to try to kill someone and fail than to kill someone by accident.
    •    The Oracles tended to tell people to rely more on their own conscience than would be typical in a shame society.
    •    The Oracles tended to recommend forgiveness rather than dogmatic adherence to strict codes (like blood vengeance).
    •    The Oracles tended to prefer honesty poverty and to disdain garish pomposity (though that didn’t keep them from doing business with Croesus).
    •    The Oracles tended to tell people to respect local customs and religions (much as Herodotus seems to have done).
    •    The Oracles tended to be big proponents of freeing slaves.
    •    “Know thyself” was written over one door to the temple
    •    “Avoid extremes” was written over another door to the temple

07. May 2008 by Arrian
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