Answering Service

The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Operations, with a Catalogue of Responses

by Joseph Fontenrose
University of California Press, 476 pp., $25.00

Psychologically, Delphi stood at the center of the Greek world. Geographically, Delphi lies west and north of Athens: just over a hundred miles distant by road, about eighty as the eagle flies, which it does less often nowadays because of noisy tourist traffic and diesel fumes. Ancient pilgrims, hardly less numerous than their modern counterparts, lacked those mixed blessings conferred by the internal combustion engine, though their grumbling at local rapacity has a timeless flavor. So does Delphi itself, which, numinous and awesome, has long outlasted all human attempts to channel or domesticate its power.

Perched some fifteen hundred feet above the Pleistos Valley, between the twin peaks of Parnassus and the steelblue waters of the Gulf of Corinth, the site possesses a tremendous beauty that ignores rather than defies exploitation. Godhead seems inherent in the landscape. Shimmering with afternoon sunlight, the towering precipice of the Phaedriades cliffs reaches up in close and easy communion with heaven. Water is best, said Pindar, and the Castalian Spring, crystalline, eternal, still quickens inspiration. Deep under the limestone, seismic forces turn in uneasy sleep. Byron claimed to be disappointed with Delphi. My guess is he was scared.

For over a thousand years, while its reputation and treasures grew, suffered intermittent setbacks, stagnated, and, in the end, dwindled away through the psychic attrition generated by intellectual skepticism or the rival prophets of Christianity, Delphi’s oracular shrine drew generation after generation of consultants, all eager to tap that mysterious dynamis, that supranormal power or vision inherent in the genius loci. There the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, seated on a tripod, and attended by lesser priests and cult officials, would respond to questions as if Apollo himself were answering them. Yet despite natural religious conservatism (which undoubtedly played a major part in the matter) the Delphic Oracle was anything but a static phenomenon. Indeed, its evolution, and crises, closely reflect the intellectual no less than the spiritual development of the Greeks who consulted it.

We are often told, by Professor Fontenrose among others, that Delphi was not in business as a consultative oracle before about 750 BC (some evidence, however, suggests a far earlier date), that its period of greatest prestige began early in the sixth century and reached its zenith shortly before the Persian Wars, that from about the time of Alexander’s death (323 BC) the Oracle entered upon an era of steadily declining influence and wealth that continued, despite occasional brief revivals (e.g,. under Hadrian), until in AD 391 Theodosius shut down all oracles and placed a general ban on divination. Yes indeed: but what we need to know, and are seldom told, is just why the graph of the Oracle’s success, decline, and ultimate eclipse should have run the way it did.

Professor Fontenrose has made an exhaustive study and catalogue of all known oracular responses in The Delphic Oracle, but this is not the sort of question that gets much of his attention. “The decline,” he says offhandedly, “runs parallel to the decline of the Greek polis.” Well, so it does: but this is merely to substitute one aspect of the conundrum for another. The true key to the puzzle surely lies in the rapid, tension-ridden, and spiritually fraught evolution of the Greek intellect from Hesiod’s lifetime to that of Aristotle. The mysteries of the universe bear one aspect in the Works and Days and quite another in the Meteorologica or the Nicomachean Ethics: and one measure of the difference between them will undoubtedly have been the attitude of an intelligent man, at each period, to judgments or knowledge derived from the utterances of an entranced peasantpriestess sitting over a hole in the ground. To map such distinctions is a prime duty of the modern scholar, for which arbitrary identification with the forces of modern enlightenment is no adequate substitute.

The early stages of any society are marked by the propitiation and, where possible, the exploitation of unknown natural powers, always in uneasy symbiosis with man’s own slowly developing control of his environment. Magic and experimental science advance hand in hand, often indistinguishable, setting up their flimsy ring-wall against chaos. As human control widens and is consolidated, the resultant shrinkage of the unknown will curtail divine prerogatives. All weather-gods are diminished by meteorology. Rationalism is an addictive drug, its main side effect hubris, e.g., the Protagorean notion of man as universal yardstick. No accident that the months immediately prior to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC) saw what was “perhaps the last occasion on which the Delphic oracle was to be consulted by a Greek. state on a major political issue, unconnected with cult or ritual.”1

Earlier, things had been different. The eighth-century world of Homer and Hesiod—barely emerged from the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, and cherishing a half-forgotten past, its totems and taboos—was nevertheless compelled to look outward, to build anew, to colonize, to explore. The eighth century hung, in terror and excitement, between old myth and new history. The uncharted West was to yield up its rich secrets; the hoary nightmare terrors of the East—beaked griffins and sphinxes, demons cannibal, castrating, incestuous—would, eventually, be tamed and rationalized. But these early pioneers still went in terror of the unknown: the outer world remained strange, baffling, unpredictable, while the gods—only mildly converted, since Homer’s Odyssey, to moral principles rather than mere inscrutable self-interest—still required to be placated at every turn. In so numinous an atmosphere, with the margin of fear and ignorance still so wide, the oracles provided an essential psychic lifeline:

Without Delphi, Greek society could scarcely have endured the tensions to which it was subjected in the Archaic Age. The crushing sense of human ignorance and human insecurity, the dread of divine phthonos [envy, jealousy], the dread of miasma [pollution]—the accumulated burden of these things would have been unendurable without the assurance which such an omniscient divine counsellor could give, the assurance that behind the seeming chaos there was knowledge and purpose.2

Further, and surprisingly in a people with so marked a gift for conceptual thought, the ultimate realities remained obstinately physical: words were winged, while the soul, however rarefied, had a tangible essence. Behind it and similar personal abstractions lurked breath, sperm, phlegm, spinal fluid.3 Chthonian commerce with the underworld was a ritual commonplace. Through pierced funeral urns libations flowed down to the thirsty dead; and from Ge [Earth] there reached the Delphic Pythia a pneuma, something less than wind and more than spirit, intangible yet surely physical, something that—for lack of a better term—we have to call inspiration.

Rational inroads on this world outlook began early, but took a long time to have any substantial effect. The rediscovery of writing came, ironically, about the same time as the presumptive establishment of the Delphic Oracle in its familiar historical form—that is, about 750 BC. What followed—the development of written law codes, the investigations of the first Milesian physicists, the swing away from tribal to civic institutions, from symbolic to conceptual thought, what we often call, in shorthand, “the Greek miracle”—for a long while only touched the more progressive upper echelons of society, and even there found a stubborn, unpredictable backlash of emotional traditionalism.

The intellectual revolution had come too fast for the average psyche to keep up with it, so that archaic patterns of belief and the New Learning pulled devastatingly against one another, often in the same person, heart against head, as Sophocles’ Antigone makes all too clear. A century before, in the sixth century, at the time of Solon or of Croesus, even under the Peisistratids, traditional piety was still virtually intact, the archaic attitude to divinity almost universal. A few jibes at anthropomorphism or the gods’ immorality, complaints about the new disruptive power of cash—these scarcely constituted an opposition movement. Nothing in excess, said Delphi: don’t try to climb the sky, or marry Aphrodite. In this world earth and heaven are still contiguous, numinous, an all-embracing structure bonded by divinity and the prerogatives of blood. This was the world that received its last late apotheosis from the epinician odes of Pindar, and in it Delphi’s role remained as central as the shrine’s sacred stone, the omphalos itself, yin to the chasm’s yang, Housman’s “midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,” which stood in the inner shrine (adyton) where the Pythia spoke, and marked (or so they said) Delphi as the meeting point of eagles circling the world.

Yet even during the Archaic period Delphi had received at least one severe psychological setback in the political field, and that was over Croesus, king of Lydia, who ruled from his capital, Sardis, in what is now northwestern Turkey. However much of Croesus’ dealings with Delphi we are prepared to write off as post eventum fabrication, his rich offerings to the Oracle are an undoubted fact, and need to be explained. Though Professor Fontenrose would like to regard them as simply part of a generalized effort to curry favor with the Greek states (which would imply political unity of a kind unknown at the time: why should Athens or Corinth care what a barbarian monarch spent on Pytho?), even he has to concede that Croesus “may very well have consulted the Oracle.” Nor can there be much doubt about the topics of his consultation. Croesus wanted an alliance with Sparta, and he was hot to conquer Persia: not for nothing did he lay out two gold staters as a present for every Delphian. It seems clear that Delphi’s oracle gave him encouragement (whether equivocal or not) on both counts. Croesus duly crossed the River Halys into Persian-held territory, only to suffer a shattering defeat and capture by Cyrus (546 BC): his Lydian empire collapsed overnight.

This embarrassing oracular error had several interesting consequences. First, it gave the Delphic priesthood (like many other people) a firm and lasting conviction of Persian invincibility, which was to play no small part in determining the oracles received by the Greeks at the time of Xerxes’ invasion in 480 BC. Second, it surely reinforced that gradual shift of oracular emphasis away from political involvement toward more purely religious topics, where, by the nature of the case, the possibility of refutation through subsequent events was far less threatening. Third, it called in question what had long been Delphi’s traditional trump card: the gift of prophecy. (Professor Fontenrose’s efforts to relegate this entirely to legend I find unconvincing.) But most important of all, the fate of Croesus, as Herodotus well knew, dramatized two problems that much concerned the Greeks of his day: the relationship between an individual’s actions and his destiny, and the whole question (by 430 BC a much-debated issue) of belief in oracles as such, a debate crystallized by the contrasting attitudes of Herodotus and Thucydides.4

Could Apollo deceive those who trusted him? Did not justice, piety, and generosity bring, inevitably, their own meritorious reward? Reading the Delphic apologia that Herodotus preserves, with its clear (if tortuously achieved) verdict on Croesus as a hubristic adventurer solely responsible for his own grim fate, we sense both the relief that such a verdict must have afforded the faithful, and the embarrassment of Delphi, deeply anxious to explain away the Pythia’s apparent lack of rapport with omniscient Apollo.

Saving the appearances, however, does not necessarily imply conscious cynicism or fraud. This seems to me an important point, which Professor Fontenrose, like many other modern scholars, does not always fully appreciate. It is striking how seldom, throughout its long history, we find any suggestion of deliberate charlatanism by the Oracle’s representatives. Not even the early Church Fathers bring such a charge. (They may regard the Pythia’s utterances as diabolically inspired, even as induced through a vaginal penetration by the pneuma, but never as merely fraudulent.) The Spartan king Cleomenes’ suborning of the Pythia in 491 BC for his own advancement remained a scandalous exception to the rule, and was always treated as such: no one, it is safe to say, was surprised when Cleomenes came to a bad end, committing suicide in a fit of insanity.

Apart from the occasional Epicurean or Cynic, the proponents of this theory of deliberate fraud have, for the most part, been rationalizing professors, whose parti pris position too often produces facile misinterpretation of the testimonia, the written accounts of allegedly contemporary statements that have come down to us. It is worth remembering that, as E.R. Dodds remarks, “anyone familiar with the history of modern spiritualism will realize what an amazing amount of virtual cheating can be done in perfectly good faith by convinced believers.” This principle surely applied to Delphi also. To picture the Delphic priesthood as a group of sophisticated political propagandists manipulating some hypothetical Mediterranean intelligence network seriously misrepresents the climate in which Delphi operated, and Professor Fontenrose (even though he does it for all the wrong reasons) is right to dismiss such a theory out of hand. The persistent ambivalence of even intelligent fifth-century Greeks to supernatural phenomena can be documented from a variety of sources. As late as 413 BC (following a much-publicized war of rival oracles pro and con the expedition as such) Nicias lost an army in Sicily by refusing to retreat for twenty-seven days after a lunar eclipse. Socrates himself was not above giving the young Xenophon a quick, and perfectly serious, lesson on the proper way to frame a question for the Pythia.

The general picture that emerges, then, is one of genuine faith, on the part of consultants and priesthood alike, set against a slow attrition of the overall sphere in which that faith operated. Man-the-measure-of-all-things would (as we can see in the pages of Thucydides) increasingly apply his reason to matters political and strategical without taking any account of divine guidance. Though Delphi would not appear to have lost any immediate prestige as a direct consequence of the Persian Wars, it is hard not to infer that the Pythia’s unlucky second-guessing at so famous a crisis in Greek history inevitably led to a mood of cautious withdrawal from power-politics, thus reinforcing the current intellectual trend: henceforth public affairs and direct predictions—especially in combination—would be increasingly conspicuous by their absence from Delphi’s repertoire.

It is of the greatest possible interest to check such presumptive trends against the exhaustive analytical statistics of Delphic responses that Professor Fontenrose has amassed in The Delphic Oracle, and that—particularly in the subdivision by topics and themes—constitute by far its most valuable feature. A perusal of these tables confirms virtually all the patterns noted above: Professor Fontenrose summarizes the situation with characteristically succinct precision:

The Historical responses that survive tend to show not only that the Delphic shrine’s pronouncements, from 450 BC at latest, were pretty much confined to sanctions of laws and proposals, particularly on religious subjects, and to prescriptions of cult acts; and that exceptions, if any, were safe statements which anybody could make; but also that the response often had the same form as the question, which was expressed in one of two or three stereotyped forms. Not one can be considered an extraordinary utterance. [My italics]

He reinforces his arguments with parallel responses from the oracle at Didyma, to which he might also have appended some of the inscriptions on lead found at Dodona, where the oracle spoke for Zeus.5 The revision and reappraisal of this vast mass of diverse material is a fine achievement: scholars will be consulting Professor Fontenrose’s quadripartite Catalogue of Responses—Historical, Quasi-Historical, Legendary, and Fictional—for many years to come.

Yet, despite everything, I found myself continually entering worried caveats against both the incidental methods and, on occasion, the underlying assumptions of this brilliant and idiosyncratic monograph. Professor Fontenrose is, to begin with, a rationalist of the most convinced sort, and as we know from a distinguished fellow mythologist,6 “it is a property of your rationalist that he is unable to understand any type of mind other than his own,” an apothegm which often recurred to my mind while studying the Fontenrose version of Delphic history. Indeed, so hot is the author against anything that might even remotely smack of superstition or the occult (which he dismisses, as a theory, in one casual phrase) that he is often led to administer a brisk flogging to some hapless academic horse long since relegated to the scholarly glue factory.

Since the exemplary French excavation reports on Apollo’s temple at Delphi, advocates of rocky chasms and mephitic vapors have been few and far between (the vapors themselves, amusingly enough, began their mephitic life as the brain-children of ancient rationalists, anxious to explain how Delphi worked). The Pythia, we are assured, spoke coherently and “was not seized with a frenzy”; but who, today, would argue that she was? It may be useful for some to be told firmly that “the most certain statement about Delphic procedure is that the Pythia sat upon a tripod when under the god’s inspiration she spoke his oracles.” But too many of Professor Fontenrose’s cockshies have been knocked down already, so that he is reduced to pelting them, in a fine rationalist frenzy, as they lie on the ground.

He even seems anxious to convince us that Apollo was not a sun god, and I can’t think offhand of any serious scholar who has believed that since the high old days of W.H. Roscher. At times, too, the arguments are disingenuous: an attack on Dodds’s theory of mediumship for the Pythia ignores the fact that Dodds, no less than Fontenrose, makes a clear distinction between Apollonian “mantic” (i.e., prophetic) enthusiasm and irrational Dionysiac frenzy.

It may, however, be more useful to examine Professor Fontenrose’s vue d’ensemble than to pile up further criticism on points of detail (which he will amass in plenty from reviewers in the classical journals, always readier to concentrate on the trees than the wood). The most remarkable conclusion he reaches, so remarkable that he feels constrained to defend it at length in his final summingup, is that, to quote his own words, “the results of this study demand a rejection as non-genuine of almost all responses said to have been spoken in the first three centuries of the Delphic Oracle, roughly 750-450.” Almost all? The first three centuries? In other words, the entire period during which, as we have seen, Delphi operated in conditions of maximum belief—involved, as never afterward, in the total continuum of Greek awareness and faith—is here relegated at a stroke to the negligible vulgar grab bag of fantasy and legend.

The arguments and statistics by which this end is achieved range from the brilliant to the circular; what I find most striking is the sheer passion and ingenuity with which Professor Fontenrose contrives to jettison almost everything except the mundane, the unremarkable, the explicable, the trite, the commonplace. Was it for this that Croesus and the Greek cities laid out such wildly munificent offerings, that official delegates thronged each monthly session of the Pythia, that poets and philosophers celebrated Apollo’s dark utterances? Is it really conceivable that for 300 years such dull and quotidian responses not only satisfied the clients but bred a wholly different, and false, literary tradition? Did no great crisis ever strike a prophetic spark from the Pythia to match the poet’s vision of her?

Professor Fontenrose claims to have followed exclusively objective criteria; but the more one looks at his categories, the clearer it becomes that he has, perhaps unconsciously, set up a working model in which the only responses recognized as historical are, almost by definition, those that avoid any taint of ambiguity, second sight, or supernatural knowledge: as he says, “simple commands and statements, none requiring uncommon foresight or cleverness,” so that the whole archaic history of this extraordinary institution prior to 450 BC can be treated with the same kind of patronizing and dismissive contempt that Victorian missionaries reserved for, say, Haitian voodoo.

Historically, to look no further, this is misleading in the extreme. It suggests, inter alia, that the only response of Greek writers to three centuries of Delphic involvement in city-state affairs was a stream of imaginative and disregardable drivel. Since a large proportion of the testimonia that have survived does indeed need—like most ancient historical evidence—correction for retrospective special pleading or incidental propaganda, such wholesale dismissal can look speciously attractive. Colonizing oracles do need weeding out. Folklore motifs have crept into the tradition. So have forgeries. Over the Persian War prophecies, however, even Professor Fontenrose is forced to admit the unlikelihood, in such a public case, “that anyone could successfully circulate these oracles as Delphic if they were not; for elder Athenians would presumably have known that they were false.” Just so. Yet this doesn’t stop him from making great play with Athens’s supposed lack of archives and media—even though elsewhere he shows himself well aware that the Peisistratids and the Spartan kings, to look no further, accumulated collections of oracles. The Persian War oracles, he says, if authentic “are extraordinary and unusual pronouncements.” So they are, and not surprisingly: it was one of the most extraordinary crises in all Greek history that called them forth. On such an occasion Apollo could, one might hope, at least offer something better than a merely routine response.

Whether the hexameter texts that Herodotus reproduces represent the Pythia’s ipsissima verba or not seems open to doubt (the author has some sensible remarks on the prevalence of prose responses), but to doubt the veracity of these pronouncements altogether, as Professor Fontenrose would clearly like to do, suggests a fundamental lack of historical perspective. And that, in the last resort, is what is wrong with this carefully researched, pragmatic, and in so many ways ultra-sensible book: it cannot see beyond the mode of historical perception that it is prepared to accept as real. If Professor Fontenrose had been dealing with, say, a Catholic historian of the Renaissance, he would have a ready pejorative label for that kind of thing: dogma. As it is, he comes closer than he realizes to the earnest Stoic dummies in Plutarch’s essays on Delphi, who in their highminded way try to explain everything intellectually, and end up making the whole operation sound like a presidential fireside chat.

  1. 1

    H.W. Parke, Greek Oracles (Hillary House, 1967), p. 108.

  2. 2

    E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California Press, 1951). p. 75.

  3. 3

    R.B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought (second edition, Cambridge, 1954), passim.

  4. 4

    See Georges Roux, Delphes: Son oracle et ses dieux (Paris; 1976), pp. 211-212; cf. Parke, op. cit., pp. 70, 97.

  5. 5

    H.W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus (Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 259ff.

  6. 6

    H.J. Rose, Modern Methods in Classical Mythology (St. Andrews, 1930), p. 20.