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The mystery of the Delphic Oracle

The mystery of the Delphic Oracle 1

If you visit Delphi today – a few hours by car from Athens – you will be treated to spectacular ruins in a stunningly beautiful setting.  Even on a very hot day – and there are plenty of hot days in Greece – the breezes and the mountains give the place an aura of serenity.  You can see the amphitheater, the marble columns, and the treasuries where various city-states sent offerings to be put on display.  There is also one spot, underground, where the Pythia – the priestess of the oracle – sat on a tall tripod, breathed in the prophecy-enabling  vapors coming out of the earth, and muttered.  Her mutterings were then reinterpreted by a priest as an answer to the petitioner who had posed his question.  Why was this place revered?  Did it have any truly prophetic qualities?  Why are people fascinated by oracles, even today?
Mythological Beginnings
There are many stories about the origins of Delphi, a place that was sacred for millennia.  Supposedly it was first guarded by a monster called Python (from which word we get the name of python snakes), a creature belonging to Gaia, who represented Mother Earth.  At some point the god Apollo slew the monster and took over the site, and from that point on Delphi was considered one of his holy places. Many see this as part of the conquest of the female gods by the male gods.  Although the cult of Apollo instituted male priests at Delphi, they kept the Pythias – women who breathed in the fumes, and went into trances and muttered.
Another legend involves Zeus, the King of the Gods, when he wanted to locate the center of the earth.  He took a pair of eagles, and had one fly from the east and the other from the west.  The birds met at Delphi, and since that myth was first told, Delphi has been known as the “navel of the earth.”
Role in Myth and History
The Oracle at Delphi played an important role in many myths.  The Corinthian prince, Oedipus, went there to ask about his parentage – someone had mocked him for his lack of resemblance to his supposed father, the King of Corinth – but instead of getting a direct answer to his question, he received a terrible prophecy.  The oracle informed him that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  Horrified, he left Delphi while resolving never to return to Corinth so that he would not risk fulfilling the prophecy.  Distraught, when his right-of-way was challenged by an angry older man on his way to Delphi, the encounter got out of hand and Oedipus ended up killing the older man.  The man, ironically, was Laius, King of Thebes, and actually his natural father, although Oedipus was unaware of the man’s identity at the time.  Then, even more ironically, while doing all he could to avoid Corinth, Oedipus traveled to Thebes and married the recently widowed queen, Jocasta – his natural mother – thus fulfilling the prophecy.
It is impossible to avoid noticing the circular nature of the prediction at Delphi: if Oedipus had not received the prophecy at Delphi, he would never have fulfilled it.  Perhaps the gods have a harsh sense of humor.  After all, if you’re immortal, things could get rather boring and Oedipus’ situation may have provided some amusement.
There are many other instances of Delphi’s role in mythology, but let’s fast forward through several centuries to Herodotus and The Histories.  His first example pertains to Croesus, a King of Lydia.  Croesus lived long enough before Herodotus that the stories about him may not be as reliable as later stories told by Herodotus, but it is still worth examination.  The Persian empire in the time of Croesus was not as large as it would be later, and Lydia itself was quite powerful.  Croesus, although very rich – he’s the source of the phrase “rich as Croesus” – yearned for still more, and the Persian empire was tempting.  Croesus, though, was not sure if attacking would be a good idea and wanted reassurances from the gods.
Curious, Croesus sent rich gifts to Delphi and asked what would happen if he attacked the Persians.  The Oracle’s response went something like this: “If you attack the Persians, you will destroy a great empire.”  Emboldened by this prophecy, he attacked the Persians, and lost, badly.  The Persians took over his empire and his wealth, but let Croesus live – which allowed him to voice reproachful protests to the gods.  What had they meant by giving him such an inaccurate prophecy?  Especially since he had made such opulent offerings?
The  gods responded that the prophecy had indeed been fulfilled.  They had never told him which empire would be destroyed – it turns out, the empire destroyed had belonged to Croesus and not to the Persians.  Evidently it is important to read prophecy fine print.  The gods maintained, too, that they had demonstrated mercy in acknowledgment of Croesus’ rich gifts, for his original intended fate had been far worse.
The Greeks versus the Persians
Let us continue with Herodotus. Although he is famous for his digressions, the main focus of The Histories is the conflict between the Persians and the Greeks. As these events were nearer to him in time, he would have been able to interview those who participated, and we can put more reliance on his accounting of the details.  First, it is important to understand how enormous the threat of the Persians was to the Greeks. A professor once described it as equivalent to the Soviet Union taking on Luxembourg – and Luxembourg winning.  Many Greek city-states surrendered immediately, hoping to avoid annihilation, but this option was not available to the Athenians, as they were the ones who had angered the Persians in the first place.  Desperate, they sent a contingent to Delphi in order to ask what they should do.
Like people who ask a question of a Magic 8 Ball and receive an unsatisfactory answer and then shake it again to receive a different fate, this happened with the Athenians and the Oracle at Delphi.  The first response given by the Pythia was very, very bad: she told them that they should flee because if they did not, they would all die.  The Athenians asked again;  the second answer contained a phrase about “relying on the wooden walls.”
Certainly this answer was an improvement over, “You’re all going to die,” but when the message was brought back to Athens, it still caused confusion.  Which wooden walls did the Pythia mean?  Some believed that the oracle’s words had referred to walls within the city or thorn bushes outside of it.  Others believed she meant their fleet of ships, all built from wood.
We don’t have a reliable transcript of the discussion, but eventually the Athenians decided to sail away on their ships instead of staying to defend their city.  Possibly they truly believed this interpretation, although to me it seems that the Pythia could have been more explicit and wooden walls.  Possibly they preferred leaving their citadel to remaining to be slaughtered by the hordes of Persians – which was basically the warning in the Pythia’s first utterance.  Perhaps they were persuaded by Themistocles, an Athenian citizen whose deeds are too long and too convoluted to detail in this article, who was the one who had recommended the building of the ships in the first place.
At any rate, most Athenians fled in their ships, depositing the women and children at a safe distance.  They then engaged the Persians in a naval battle known as the battle of Salamis.  I won’t describe it here, but suffice it to say that through deception and cleverness, making use of the straits and narrows and the fact that the Athenians could swim, the Athenians won, turning the tide of history.
Archaeology and Geology
Although many might scoff at the idea of there being anything factual to the stories that have reached us from antiquity, it turns out there was something to the legends concerning the Pythia.  When an archaeologist, J.R. Hale, teamed up with a geologist, J.Z. De Boer, the geologist pointed out immediately that the area surrounding Delphi was full of fault lines and that the Pythia’s chamber was where two fault lines met.
Because of the fault line intersection, it was possible for fumes to be coming out of the earth.  But did they?  Research indicates that there may have been ethylene, methane, and other gases which induced trances in the various Pythias.
We know from Plutarch that the Pythias who breathed in the fumes experienced shorter lifespans, according to him due to the intensity of the work.  What if it was due to the unhealthy gases which they breathed?  One young woman actually died on the job, so to speak, or a short while after being exposed to fumes.
Why Do People Believe in Oracles?
Why were people ready to trust their decision-making to an oracle?  We could ask the same question of many other activities, both past and present.  Why do people read horoscopes today? Why did people examine livers of sacrificed animals in the past?  Why do people go to fortune tellers?
Sometimes a decision must be made – actions must be taken – without enough information for making that  decision.  In the case of Athens facing the threat of the Persian army, it was a question of survival – not only of their army, but essentially their entire civilization.
By the way, not all Greeks accepted the notion that they should turn to the Oracle at Delphi.  Some preferred more rational solutions.  And although the Pythia’s prediction proved prophetic in the end, we should remember that it was not her first prediction.
Perhaps this means that we should pester fate when we don’t like its initial answer.   And perhaps an answer, open to multiple interpretations, is useful in quelling panic and encouraging creative solutions.
The fumes have long since evaporated from the intersection of fault lines at Delphi, so you cannot go there to listen to oracular responses to your most pressing questions.  Nevertheless the place is worth a visit.  And thinking over your most pressing questions – and coming up with your own answers – will help you fulfill the most famous Delphic maxim, “Know thyself,” which according to the ancient travel-writer Pausanias, was inscribed in the forecourt of Apollo’s temple at Delphi.


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