List of oracular statements from Delphi

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Priestess of Delphi (1891), as imagined by John Collier; the Pythia is inspired by pneuma rising from below as she sits on a tripod

Pythia was the priestess presiding over the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. There are more than 500 supposed Oracular statements which have survived from various sources referring to the oracle at Delphi. Many are anecdotal, and have survived as proverbs. Several are ambiguously phrased, apparently in order to show the oracle in a good light regardless of the outcome. Such prophesies were admired for their dexterity of phrasing. One such famous prediction was the answer to an unknown person who was inquiring as to whether it would be safe for him to join a military campaign; the answer was: "Go, return not die in war", which can have two entirely opposite meanings, depending on where a missing comma is supposed to be – before or after the word "not". Nevertheless the Oracle seems consistently to have advocated peaceful, not violent courses generally.

The following list presents some of the most prominent and historically significant.

Early period[edit]

Lycurgus[edit]

Greco-Roman historiographers record some early oracular statements from Delphi as delivered to Lycurgus, the semi-legendary Spartan lawgiver (fl. 8th century BC).

According to the report by Plutarch, the oracle told Lycurgus that his prayers had been heard and that the state which observed the laws of Lycurgus would become the most famous in the world. With such an endorsement, Lycurgus went to the leading men of Sparta and enlisted their support. Seeking further assistance she also told him:

There are two roads, most distant from each other: the one leading to the honorable house of freedom, the other the house of slavery, which mortals must shun. It is possible to travel the one through manliness and lovely accord; so lead your people to this path. The other they reach through hateful strife and cowardly destruction; so shun it most of all.[1][not in citation given]

As a result Lycurgus built a constitution for the Spartans that combined features of a monarchy with two kings, of a land-owning aristocracy and a democracy.

Historiographers also attribute to Lycurgus the introduction of a very cumbersome coinage made from iron (in order to prevent theft and bribery).

In the account of Plutarch and Diodorus, this was also based on an oracular statement,

Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta.[2]

The supposed oracular statement in retrospect was interpreted as being fulfilled as the gold and silver Sparta's soldiers sent home after the Peloponnesian War were to prove to be Sparta's undoing. It is not likely that this oracle was delivered, if it is at all historical, to Lycurgus himself, as coinage had not been introduced in his time.[3]

630 BC[edit]

In 630 BC, the king of the island of Thera went to Delphi to offer a gift on behalf of his native city, and was told by the oracle:

that he should found a city in Libya.

Because the king did not know where Libya was, he did nothing. Later it did not rain on Thera for a considerable period, and to find out what could be done, the Therans again approached the oracle. She said:

if they ... would make a settlement at Cyrene in Libya, things would go better with them.

To relieve the pressure from the drought, and following the advice of the oracle, the Therans sought advice from the Cretans as to where Libya was and a colony of Thera was established at Platea. But bad luck still followed them for another two years, so they visited the oracle a third time. She said:

Know you better than I, fair Libya abounding in fleeces? Better the stranger than he who has trod it? Oh! Clever Therans![4]

The Therans sought advice from the local Libyans who gave them a new site, and the colony prospered.

595 BC[edit]

In 595 BC, the affairs of the Oracle were felt too important to be left to the Delphians alone, and the sanctity of the site came to be protected by the Amphictyonic League, a league of 12 cities in existence since 1100 BC. (The league had been named after Amphictyon of Thermopylae, brother of Hellen, the first Greek (or non-Pelasgian) King of Athens.) In that year, nearby Kirra levied a toll on pilgrims, which ushered in the First Sacred War. After 5 years of struggle, the Oracle decreed that the site of Kirra be left fallow, sacred to Apollo. This ushered in a period of great prosperity.

594 BC[edit]

In 594 BC, Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, seeking to capture the island of Salamis from Megara and Cirrha was told by the oracle:

First sacrifice to the warriors who once had their home in this island,

Whom now the rolling plain of fair Asopia covers,
Laid in the tombs of heroes with their faces turned to the sunset,

He did, and taking as volunteers 500 young Athenians whose ancestors came from Salamis, was successful in capturing the island that was to prove so important in later Athenian history. Solon never ceased to support and give credit to the oracle for its support in declaring the island was originally Ionian.

In framing his famous constitutional reforms for Athens, Solon again sought the advice of the oracle who told him:

Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Athens. Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city.

As a result Solon refused the opportunity to become a revolutionary tyrant, and created a constitution for which he, and Athens, were justly honoured. Through trial by jury, a graduated tax system and the forgiveness of debts he prevented a growing gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots". But he refused to accept the confiscations of the property of the rich, so creating an Athenian middle class. He secured an Oath from the Athenian Council of Magistrates that if they violated these laws they would dedicate a gold statue to the Oracle of Delphi of equal weight to themselves.[5]

590 BC[edit]

In his biography of Pythagoras in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius (3rd century AD) cites the statement of Aristoxenus (4th century BC) that Themistoclea taught Pythagoras his moral doctrines: [6]

Aristoxenus says that Pythagoras got most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess Themistoclea.

Porphyry (233 - 305 AD) calls her Aristoclea (Aristokleia), although there is little doubt that he is referring to the same person.[7] Porphyry repeats the claim that she was the teacher of Pythagoras:[8]

He (Pythagoras) taught much else, which he claimed to have learned from Aristoclea at Delphi.

560 BC[edit]

In 560 BC, Croesus of Lydia, in a trial of oracles, consulted all the famous oracles as to what he was doing on an appointed day. According to Herodotus, the oracle proclaimed:

οἶδα δ᾽ ἐγὼ ψάμμου τ᾽ ἀριθμὸν καὶ μέτρα θαλάσσης, καὶ κωφοῦ συνίημι, καὶ οὐ φωνεῦντος ἀκούω. ὀδμή μ᾽ ἐς φρένας ἦλθε κραταιρίνοιο χελώνης ἑψομένης ἐν χαλκῷ ἅμ᾽ ἀρνείοισι κρέεσσιν, ᾗ χαλκὸς μὲν ὑπέστρωται, χαλκὸν δ᾽ ἐπιέσται.

[Translation: I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless. The smell has come to my sense of a hard shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb's flesh in a bronze pot: the cauldron underneath it is of bronze, and bronze is the lid.][9]

Delphi was declared the winner. Croesus then asked if he should make war on the Persians and if he should take to himself any allied force. The oracles to whom he sent this question included those at Delphi and Thebes. Both oracles gave the same response, that if Croesus made war on the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire. They further advised him to seek out the most powerful Greek peoples and make alliance with them.

Croesus paid a high fee to the Delphians and then sent to the oracle asking "Would his monarchy last long?" The Pythia answered:

ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν ἡμίονος βασιλεὺς Μήδοισι γένηται, καὶ τότε, Λυδὲ ποδαβρέ, πολυψήφιδα παρ᾽ Ἕρμον φεύγειν μηδὲ μένειν μηδ᾽ αἰδεῖσθαι κακός εἶναι.

[Translation: Whenever a mule shall become sovereign king of the Medians, then, Lydian Delicate-Foot, flee by the stone-strewn Hermus, flee, and think not to stand fast, nor shame to be chicken-hearted.][10]

Croesus thought it impossible that a mule should be king of the Medes and thus believed that he and his issue would never be out of power. He thus decided to make common cause with certain Greek city states and attack Persia.[10]

However, it was he, not the Persians, who was defeated, fulfilling the prophecy but not his interpretation of it. He apparently forgot that Cyrus, the victor, was half Mede (by his mother), half Persian (by his father) and therefore could be considered a mule.[11]

In Bacchylides' ode,[12] composed for Hiero of Syracuse, who won the chariot race at Olympia in 468, Croesus with his wife and family mounted the funeral pyre, but before the flames could envelop the king, he was snatched up by Apollo and spirited away to the Hyperboreans. Herodotus' version includes Apollo in more "realistic" mode: Cyrus, repenting of the immolation of Croesus, could not put out the flames until Apollo intervened.[13]

Classical Period[edit]

480 BC[edit]

In 480 BC, when Xerxes, the son of Darius the Great of Persia, returned to finish the job of conquering the Greeks in which his father had failed, the Athenians consulted the oracle. They were told:

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, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe.[5]

It was unambiguous. When persuaded to seek advice a second time, the oracle gave a way for the Athenians to escape their doom. When Athena approached her father to help her city, Zeus responded that he would grant that "a wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children."[5]

The oracle again advised the Athenians to flee:

Await not in quiet the coming of the 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 the grain.[5]

Meanwhile, the Spartans also consulted the oracle and were told:

The strength of bulls or lions cannot stop the foe. No, he will not leave off, I say, until he tears the city or the king limb from limb.[5]

or in a version according to Herodotus:

Hear your fate, O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces;

Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus' sons,
Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon
Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,
And will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.[14]

The Spartans withdrew in consternation, wondering which fate was worse. The Delphians themselves then asked how Persia could be defeated. The oracle replied:

Pray to the Winds. They will prove to be mighty allies of Greece.[15]

Events overtook the prophecy when the Persian army assaulted Thermopylae, where the Spartans (notably “the 300”) and allies held the pass against them. The Spartans under King Leonidas (The Lion) resisted the Persian advance at Thermopylae until betrayed by treachery. Refusing to retreat, the entire Spartan contingent, including their King (as foretold), lost their lives, but in so doing gained immortal fame. The Persian armada then sailed to nearby Cape Artemisium, where they were met by the Athenian fleet. The Athenian ships fought against great odds, but in three battles managed to hold their own.

A tremendous storm then arose at Artemesium, with the most violent winds attacking the ships for three days. The Persians lost about 20% of their warships and perhaps the same number of transport vessels to the storm. The stormy winds and huge waves did not harm the Athenian ships.

Back in Athens Themistocles argued that the wall of wood referred to the Athenian navy and persuaded the Athenians to pursue their policy of using wealth from their Attic silver mines at Laurium to continue building their fleet. On the grounds that the oracle referred to the nearby island of Salamis as "holy", he claimed that those slain would be Greece's enemies, not the Athenians. For these the oracle would have said "O cruel Salamis". His voice carried the day, Athens was evacuated to Salamis and in a following naval battle the Athenian fleet and its allies destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis, while watched by Xerxes. Despite the fact that Athens was burned by the Persians, her occupants were saved, the Persian risk was ended and the authority of the Oracle was never higher.

440 BC[edit]

Circa 440 BC the Oracle is also said to have said that there was no one wiser than Socrates, to which Socrates said that either all were equally ignorant, or that he was wiser in that he alone was aware of his own ignorance ("what I do not know I do not think I know"). This claim is related to one of the most famous mottos of Delphi, which Socrates said he learned there, Gnothi Seauton (γνῶθι σεαυτόν): "know thyself!". Another famous motto of Delphi is Meden agan (μηδὲν ἄγαν): "nothing in excess" (literally, "nothing excessively"). Socrates was perhaps only about 30 years old at the time, his fame as a philosopher was yet to come. One version of the claim stated that a friend of Socrates, Chaerephon, went before Pythia asking, "Is there any man alive wiser than Socrates?" The answer that he received was simply, "None."[16]

431 BC[edit]

At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War the Spartans send a delegation to Delphi inquire whether it would be wise to go to war against Athens. According to Thucydides, "It is said that the god replied that if they fought with all their might, victory would be theirs, and that he himself would be on their side, whether they invoked him or not."[17]

403 BC[edit]

In 403 BC, Lysander, the Spartan victor of the Peloponnesian War was warned to beware:

Also the dragon (serpent), earthborn, in craftiness coming behind thee.[18]

He was slain from behind in 395 BC by Neachorus, who had a serpent painted upon his shield.

401 BC[edit]

In 401 BC, Sparta was warned:

Sure though thy feet, proud Sparta, have a care,

A lame king's reign may see thee trip — Beware!
Troubles unlooked for long shall vex thy shore,
And rolling Time his tide of carnage pour.[18]

Agesilaus, the lame king of Sparta, who acceeded to the Spartan throne at the time of Lysander, through attacking enemies in every quarter, lost control of the seas to the Persians who attacked Spartan coastal locations. In his obsession with Thebes, he incited the Thebans under Epaminondas to fight back. The Spartans were defeated for the first time by the Thebans in the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC; this led to the invasion of Sparta itself and its defeat at the battle of Mantinea in 362 BC.

359 BC[edit]

In 359 BC, Philip II of Macedon consulted the Oracle and was told:

With silver spears you may conquer the world[19]

The king then sought to control the silver mines in the neighbouring Thracian and Illyrian kingdom, and using them to bribe his way to early victories, playing one Greek state off against the others, and isolating his enemies by bribes to potential allies.

Philip also had a highly spirited black colt that no one could ride. The Oracle of Delphi stated whoever could ride this horse would conquer the world, but despite many attempts neither Philip nor any of his generals could mount the horse. His son, Alexander, later to be called the Great, succeeded as he realized that the horse was afraid of his own shadow. Philip gave the horse Bucephalus to Alexander, who took the steed on his conquest of Asia.

In 353 BC, a third Sacred War broke out when Thebes had placed a fine upon Phokis, and Phokis, to pay for the war, heavily taxed the people of nearby Delphi and seized the Treasury of Delphi. The Amphictyonic League led by Philip declared war against Phokis. Philip sought to unite all Greece with Macedon in the Amphictyonic League to attack Persia. In 339 BC, Philip interfered once again against the Amphictyonic alliance when the Krissans trespassed on Apollo's sacred grounds. Philip punished the Krissans, and consequently in 338 BC. defeated the combined armies of the Athenians and the Spartans, thus becoming the dominant force in Greek affairs. Eventually, at the Battle of Chaeronea he was successful against the Athenians and Thebans but he was assassinated before he could lead the invasion of Persia.

Alexander the Great visited the Delphic Oracle wishing to hear a prophecy that he would soon conquer the entire ancient world. To his surprise the oracle refused a direct comment and asked him to come later. Furious, Alexander dragged Pythia by the hair out of the chamber until she screamed "Let go of me; you’re unbeatable." The moment he heard these words he dropped her, saying, "Now I have my answer".[20]

Roman Period[edit]

279 BC[edit]

In 279 BC, plundered by a Celtic invasion, the oracle declared:

Care for these things fall on me!

The Celts were met by earthquakes, avalanches, and a massive snow storm, forcing them to retreat. But the Romans were a different matter. In 191 BC, the sanctuary of Delphi fell into the Roman sphere of influence, and the oracle generally supported the rise of Rome henceforth.

83 BC[edit]

In 83 BC, Delphi was razed by an attack from the Thracian tribe of Maedi who extinguished the sacred fire which had been burning uninterrupted for centuries. At the time of Pompey the Great, Cicero, Pompey's ally, consulted the Oracle as to how he should find greatest fame and was told:

Make your own nature, not the advice of others, your guide in life.

Pompey was subsequently defeated by Julius Caesar. Cicero cultivated his oratory and his skills in the courts in preserving Rome from the Catilinarian conspiracy, earning undying fame.

67 AD[edit]

In 67 AD, Emperor Nero, who was just 30 years old and had killed his own mother in 59 AD, when visiting the Oracle was told:

Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!

He was angered and had the Pythia burned alive.[19] Nero thought he would have a long reign and die at 73. Instead his reign came to a short end after a revolt by Galba who was 73 years of age at the time.

Before 117 AD[edit]

Before 117 AD the Emperor Hadrian visited Delphi before he reached the throne. After drinking of the Kassotis, his destiny as Emperor was proclaimed. When he had acceded to the throne, he ordered it blocked up so no one else could get the same idea in the same way.

362 AD[edit]

Hagiography has it that in 362, on behalf of his emperor Julian the Apostate, Oribasius visited the Delphic oracle, now in a rather desolate state, offering his emperor's services to the temple and, in return, receiving one of the last prophecies by the Delphic Pythia:

Tell the emperor that my hall has fallen to the ground. Phoibos no longer has his house, nor his mantic bay, nor his prophetic spring; the water has dried up.[21]

Conclusion[edit]

In addition to these politically important prophecies, there were many thousands of pronouncements that led to the freeing of slaves, the creation of successful marriages, the honouring of local gods, the successful planting of crops and engagement in trade and industry, many of which were later honoured by gifts or inscriptions at the oracle site. The Pythia of Delphi was arguably the most powerful woman of the ancient world.[22]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Plutarch (9 BC). "Life of Lycurgus". Retrieved 2008-06-26.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ Diodorus VII.12.5, also Plutarch Moralia 239 ff
  3. ^ Kenneth Royce Moore, Was Pythagoras Ever Really in Sparta?, Rosetta Journal Issue #06, Spring 2009.
  4. ^ Arthur Stanley Pease, Notes on the Delphic Oracle and Greek Colonization (Classical Philology, Vol. 12, No. 1 (January , 1917), pp. 1-20)
  5. ^ a b c d e Fontenrose, Joseph (1981). The Delphic Oracle, Its Responses and Operations, with a Catalogue of Responses. University of California Press. 
  6. ^ Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers
  7. ^ Gilles Ménage, (1984), The history of women philosophers, page 48. University Press of America. "The person who is referred to as Themistoclea in Laertius and Theoclea in Suidas, Porphyry calls Aristoclea."
  8. ^ Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, 41
  9. ^ "The history of Herodotus — Volume 1 by Herodotus". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  10. ^ a b Herodotus, "The History" trans. David Grene, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, I.55
  11. ^ Herodotus, "Histories" (Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth
  12. ^ Bacchylides Ode 3.23-62.
  13. ^ Just such an intervention in extinguishing a funeral pyre was adapted by Christian hagiographers as a conventional literary topos in the martyrdom of saints.
  14. ^ Macaulay, G. C. "Section on Delphi and the Pythian oracle from Herodotus Book VII 140-3."
  15. ^ Macaulay, G. C. "Section on Delphi and the Pythian oracle from Herodotus Book VII 140-3.
  16. ^ http://www.wisecounselresearch.com/research/portrait-gallery/delphic-oracle Sighted 14/5/2013
  17. ^ Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, Penguin, 1954, 103.
  18. ^ a b "Plutarch: On the Pythian Responses". Retrieved 30 June 2009. 
  19. ^ a b http://www.wisecounselresearch.com/research/portrait-gallery/delphic-oracle, sighted 14/05/2013
  20. ^ http://www.delphic-oracle.info/delphic-oracle.asp
  21. ^ Thomas, Carol G. (1988). Paths from Ancient Greece. Brill Publishers. p. 47. 
  22. ^ Broad, William J. The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets, 2006. ISBN 1-59420-081-5.

References[edit]

  • Parke, H. W., A History of the Delphic Oracle, Basil Blackwell, 1939.
  • Plutarch, Moralia, tr. Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb Library Series, Harvard University Press, 1962.