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Oracle at Delphi

Delphi, in the view of the Greeks, lay at the exact center of the world. Its omphalos or ‘navel stone’ marked the meeting-place of two of Zeus’s eagles, one sent from the east and one from the west. Here, too, in a deep valley ringed by the dark pines and rose-tinted cliffs of Mt. Parnassus, Apollo had established the most prestigious of oracles. In historic times, the Temple of Apollo was built alongside an amphitheater, a stadium for the Pythian Games, and the numerous treasuries of patron cities. In 331 BC Aristotle and his nephew drew up a list of all the victors of the Pythian Games to date. Their findings were inscribed on four stone tablets, which survived to be found by modern archaeologists.

The procedures of the oracle followed a timeless ritual. On the seventh day of each month the high priestess, Pythia, freshly purified in the Castalian Spring, Would seat herself on the sacred tripod above the chasm and, locked in an ecstatic trance among the vapours, would await her petitioners’ enquiries. The petitioners, having watched the customary sacrifice of a goat, would await her notoriously ambiguous responses, delivered in rhyming hexameters?

Theseus, the legendary slayer of the Minotaur and founder of Athens, was given this comfort.

Theseus, Son of Aegeus ...  do not be distressed. For as a leathern bottle you will ride the waves even in a swelling surge.

The citizens of Thera, worried by their failing colony on the African coast, were told to reconsider its location:

If you know libya, the nurse of flocks, better than I do, when you have not been there ... I admire your wisdom.

Moved to the mainland from its of shore island, Cyrene prospered.

King Croesus of Lydia wanted to know whether to make war or to keep the peace. The Oracle said : ‘Go to war and destroy a great empire.’ He went to war, and his empire was destroyed.

Before Salamis in 480 CB, an Athenian delegation implored the aid of Apollo against the Persian invaders:

Pallas in not able to appease zeus...But when all else has been capwooden wall...to bless you and your children.

Themistocles, the Athenian admiral, rightly deduced that the key to victory lay with his wooden ships.

Lysander, the Spartan general who had entered Athens in triumph at the end of the Peloponnesian War, was warned:

I Bid you guard against a roaring haploid and a snake, cunning son of the earth, which attacks behind the back.

He was killed by a soldier with the emblem of a snake on his shield.

Philip of Macedon, notorious for his bribery, was reputedly told ‘To fight with silver spears’. More authentically, on preparing to fight the Persians, he received this prophecy: ‘The bull is garlanded, the end is come, the sacrificer is nigh.’ Shortly afterwards he was murdered.

The Roman, Lucius Julius Brunus, consulted the Oracle with two companions, and asked about their future:

Young men, he among you who first shall kiss his mother will hold the highest power in Rome.

Brunus’ companions took the hint literally, whilst Brunus bent down to kiss the earth. In 509 BC Brunus became First Consul.

Four centuries later, Cicero asked the Oracle how one achieved the highest fame. He was told:

Make your own nature, not the opinion of the multitude, the guide of your life.

The Emperor Nero, fearing death, was told: ‘Expect evil from 73’. Encouraged, he thought that he might live to be 73. In the event he was overthrown and forced to kill himself at the age of 31. Seventy-three turned out to be the age of his successor, Galba.

Most famously, perhaps, when Alexander the Great consulted the Oracle, it remained silent.

Belief in the omniscience of the Delphic Oracle is almost as great among enthusiastic moderns at it was among the superstitious Greeks of old. For scholars, however, the problem lies in distinguishing the Oracle’s real achievements from its limitless reputation. Sceptics point out that none of the alleged predictions was ever recorded in advance of the events to which they referred. The amazing powers of the Oracle could never be tested. A powerful cult, an efficient publicity machine, and a gullible public were all essential elements of the operation.

Many of the oracle’s most famous sayings were inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Apollo. These included ‘Nothing in Excess’ and ‘Know Thyself’. They became the watchwords of Greek civilization.

From: Europe: A History by Norman Davies

 

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