Republication from the Conversation

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

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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.

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

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