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Oracle (cont’d)

In response to:

An Exchange on the Oracle from the September 27, 1979 issue

The following letter should have been part of “An Exchange on the Oracle” in the Sept. 27 issue. We regret the omission and republish the relevant part of Peter Green’s response.

To the Editors:

May I add a note in amplification of Peter Green’s excellent and much-needed discussion of the background to the disappearance of political prophecy and advice from the repertoire of the Delphic Oracle [review of The Delphic Oracle by Joseph Fontenrose, NYR, April 5]?

First, his insistence on the fact that what has seemed to rationalist interpreters politically motivated did not seem so to contemporaries and very probably was never consciously so can be confirmed by the observation that the “victims” of that supposed motivation (the Greeks in 480, the Athenians after 431, to mention only the most obvious) never protested, in fact went on consulting the Oracle as a matter of course. Modern parallels may be illuminating. Historians writing about our own age in a more “rationalist” future may well conclude that the modern equivalents of the Delphic Oracle—in particular, economists and the queer fish who swim in “think-tanks”—base their political predictions and advice on personal and political prejudice. Nonetheless, we know that this is not the common perception: however often the predictions and advice turn out to be wrong, the faithful come back for more and pay heavy tribute for it. And it is clear to any unprejudiced observer that, whatever unconscious prejudice may (and often does) enter into the oracular predictions obtained from inspired computers, the men and women concerned in fact see themselves as conscientiously applying their science according to recognized principles—just as the priests and the Pythia did. The dissociation of the past from present reality here, as elsewhere, has made for very bad history.

There is perhaps a footnote to be added, against the background that Peter Green has sketched for us. (It is not intended as an alternative but as a supplement.) It may be argued that, within that cultural framework, the political activity of the Oracle came to a stop when its politicization became deliberate and patent. It did not stop in 431: far from it. As late as 371 BC, the Thebans consulted the Oracle (and all others they could think of) before risking resistance to Sparta. And in one of the most extraordinary documents surviving from the 4th century BC, we find Philip II of Macedon and the Chalcidic League led by Olynthus consulting the Oracle in 357/6 on whether they should make peace and on what terms. (The Oracle approved. A few years later, Philip was ready to attack and destroy Olynthus. Needless to say, it has often been maintained that the Oracle was trying to aid Philip in 357/6, but this is totally implausible.) It was in 356 that the Thebans, controlling a majority of votes on the venerable Amphictyonic Council that governed the Temple, began to use that control to have their enemies condemned of sacrilege. One result was that a Phocian commander, himself among the victims, seized Delphi in 356 and began to use its funds for Phocian military purposes. The Amphictyonic Council, separated from the actual sanctuary, declared a “Sacred War,” which lasted for ten years, and in that “Great Schism” between Delphi and its governing body religious issues were soon all but irrelevant and the Greek states divided according to political and military interest. In the end, Philip II gained control of Delphi and reunited it with the Council, which he also came to control; and after years of complicated maneuvering, in 339 BC he used the pretext of leading another “Sacred War” in order to launch the offensive that led to his victory at Chaeronea and his domination over the Greeks.

Legend connects Philip and Alexander with many favorable oracles from Delphi. But political acceptance of the good faith and “science” of the interpreters of Apollo is last attested precisely before the events of 356-338: the “Great Schism” and its consequences, which made it clear that both the Oracle and its Governing Council had become a piece of political machinery.

E. Badian

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Peter Green replies:

Delphi was there for consultation: “involvement” does not of itself imply initiative. That is as true of the Persian War oracles as of any other: the Athenians, for instance, wanted Delphi’s opinion, and got it. Like Dodona, like Didyma, the Pythia doubtless did issue a majority of responses that were run-of-the-mill; but this is no reason for treating the minority of significant exceptions as spurious. Here Professor Badian’s line of approach strikes me as far more useful [than Professor Fontenrose’s]. As he says, people who want to believe will, under normal circumstances, believe regardless, and can cheerfully accommodate, or explain away, any number of false responses; but if they are confronted with blatant, and public, political manipulation, then at the least they will stop asking religiously inspired political questions. I would argue, myself, that by the time of Philip’s démarche with the Chalcidians, politicization was already well advanced, so that consultation had become conscious propaganda rather than in any sense an act of faith; the same could just be true of the Thebans before Leuctra in 371 (Pausanias 4.32.5), though they did have a long-standing record of reliance on the Pythia in military matters, which persisted even after their annihilation by Alexander.

Professor Badian’s terminus ad quem, then, may be updatable (I suspect the truth to lie somewhere between his date, after 356, and that advanced by Parke, c. 431), but methodologically his arguments are of the greatest value. However, we still need a historical analysis of Delphi’s changing role in the affairs of the Greek city-states between the eighth and fifth centuries BC. Because of its preconceptions, Professor Fontenrose’s monograph not only fails to provide this, but in some respects is liable to prove a stumbling-block for future research.

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