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 …

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