Oracles: Seeing the Future to Understand the Past
Cave of Trophonius
I. Greek Oracles [Map of Greece]
• Links to gods
2. Greek "rationality"
• Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle, & Archimedes
• Oracles reveal transcendent diminsion
• Pervasive in Greek culture, writing, society
- Herodotus, Euripides, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Pindar and Plutarch
- Kings, generals, common Greeks
B. Major Oracles in the Ancient Greek World [Map of Main Oracles]
1. Oracles of Apollo
• Didymes/Didyma (~100 miles SW of Sardis)
2. Oracles of Zeus
• Dodona (NW Greece)
• Siwa (Libya)
- Cult of Ammon
3. Demigod Oracles
• Oropos (north of Athens)
• Cave of Trophonius
- Lebadea (20 miles east of Delphi)
4. Croesus (595-547 BCE)
• Lydia (Anatolia)
• 560 BCE - sent emissaries to the top oracles
- Gave them 100 days
- On assigned day asked same question
II. Oracle at Delphi [Temple map] [Temple of Delphi - 3D Reconstruction]
A. Who (or what) was the Oracle?
1. Oracle was a woman
• advised on topics of sex lives, affairs of state, forecasting wars & political actions
• Guiding light of Greek civilization
• Wealth and Trust
• Powerful woman in a man's world
2. Oracle was several women
• Succession of women held the position
• 3 oracles working as a team
- 2 on call one as an assistant
• Young or Old?
B. How did one receive the Oracle's prophecy?
1. Temple located at Mt. Parnassus
- delph = hollow
- delphis = womb
- omphalos = naval/center
- Near Gulf of Cointh
- Overland trade route
- Close to both Sparta and Athens
2. 7th Day of every month
• March to October only
- November to February Dionysus controlled Delphi
• Oracle would ritually purify herself situate herself in a room in the center of the temple
• Petitioners draw lots to see who would go first
- pay nominal fee
- ritually wash and sacrifice an animal (if any bad omens, not allowed to proceed)
- ushered into temple
• Ask one (and only one) question
- Tended towards the serious and consequential
• Oracle's Response
- Hexameter verse (like Homer) then prose
- Babbling incoherently or genuine pronouncements?
3. Chemical Inspiration?
• sits atop intersection of two faultlines
• Sweet oder (Plutarch)
• Which gas?
- Ethelyne = rarely present in nature in large amounts
- Carbon dioxide mixed with methane = no sweet smell
- Deficit of oxygen = induce vomiting
- Benzene = dangerous and even lethal
III. Famous Prophecies
• Should he attack Persia? (c. 560 BCE)
- RESPONSE: If he marches against Persia, a mighty empire will fall
• Croesus overjoyed, showers gifts on Delphi
- Delphi grants Croesus and people of Lydia citizenship
• Attacks Persia and is utterly defeated
- Lydian envoys ask how could Oracle be wrong?
2. Xerxes (Persia) attacks Greece (480 BCE) [Oracle and the Persians]
• How can Athens escape defeat?
Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat. They shiver with dread.
The black blood drips from the highest rooftops. They have seen the necessity
of evil. Get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe!
• Stunned . . .
- Delphi citizen suggests going back
A wall of wood to be alone uncaptured, a boon to you and your children.
Await not in quiet the coming horses, the marching feet, the armed host
upon the land. Slip away Turn your back. You will meet in battle anyway.
O Holy Salamis you will be the death of many a woman's son between the
seedtime and the harvest of grain.
• Debate in Athens
- Retreat to Acropolis
- Withdraw from city to Salamis (Themistocles)
- Naval battle
IV. How to make sense?
1. Intangibles in History