Who Was She?
The Delphic Oracle was a temple of the god Apollo, located outside the town of Delphi. It was the most authoritative source of guidance in the ancient world, with far more prestige than any human counselor. For over a millennium, a succession of priestesses, each known as the Pythia, uttered the god’s pronouncements. Those who consulted them ranged from commoners to kings and emperors. Their questions covered the gamut from proposed marriages or business deals to invasions that reshaped the map of the known world.
The Oracle was well-known for ambiguity, which it augmented through much of its history by speaking in poetic verse. When the Lydian king Croesus asked if he should make war on the Persians, the Oracle replied that, if he did, he would destroy a great empire. Thinking that the Pythia meant the Persian Empire, he proceeded, and lost his own kingdom. Prior to the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC, the Oracle advised Athenian supplicants that a “wall of wood” would save them. After their naval victory at Salamis, they decided that the Oracle had meant their ships. The Oracle told Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander) that “with silver spears you may conquer the world,” by which he understood that bribes would prove his best weapons. An Athenian named Chaerephon asked the Oracle “if anyone was wiser than Socrates.” The Oracle replied, “None.” Socrates took this reply to mean not that he was wise but that there is nothing much in human wisdom.
This ambiguous, poetic approach to giving advice may strike one as prone to error and misinterpretation. But it fit well the Oracle’s complicated place in the world. The Oracle’s words had consequences, sometimes large political consequences. And even if she was divinely inspired, the Pythia was flesh-and-blood. So too were her priests and interpreters. They were vulnerable to unsatisfied supplicants.
For example, the young Alexander dragged the Pythia from her sacred stool when she refused to grant him an audience. When the Pythia gave a response to the Roman emperor Nero that he did not like (calling him, accurately, a matricide), he had her burned alive. Many times throughout its history, the Delphic Oracle found itself at the mercy of surrounding states, which plundered its treasures or taxed its supplicants.
Surely, an advisor who lies for gain is noxious. But a prophet or advisor who guarantees his own doom does no good for himself or those seeking his advice. Many advisors today focus more on “process”—the method of helping someone find the best answers for himself—than on “content.” In contrast, the Pythia offered “answers” only, no process. It seems to have worked. The Delphic Oracle lasted longer than any human advisor to date.
What Does She Teach Us About Wise Counsel?
In antiquity, the people who went to the Oracle to ask for advice were known as “consultants,” literally, “those who seek counsel.” Today we use the word in exactly the opposite way, to indicate someone who gives advice. This difference prompts the question, “Where does the consultant’s advice come from?”
As authoritative as the Oracle was, even in the ancient world, people debated whether the Pythia’s utterances came from the god or from more natural or even human sources. In his writings on the Oracle, Plutarch, who was himself a priest of Apollo, speculates “exhalations” from the ground in Delphi affected the priestess’ mind. He also quotes several times a line from the tragic poet Euripides, “The best of seers is he that guesses well.” In other words, there was considerable suspicion that the Pythia offered supplicants at best educated guesses.
How about today? Times have changed, and few people would now consult an oracle, exhalations or not. However, this does not mean that we live without our own mysterious authorities. The greatest of these is science itself. Our new oracles are often invoked with speeches that begin, “Research shows …” “The numbers suggest …” Or, “Science reveals …”
Further, while consultants visited the Pythia because they believed her divine, she did not inspire blind faith. As the philosopher Heraclitus observed about Delphi, “The god does not say or conceal but rather points.” The Oracle’s authority coupled with its poetic ambiguity inspired inquiry. Precisely because the ancients believed that gods could speak through priestesses, or bird’s entrails, or oak trees, they had to ask, “Is this oracle truly from the god or a human fiction?” And, if the former, “What does it mean?” Their credulity fueled their reasoning.
Compare today most people’s response to science. Most believe it something mysterious, understood only by a few devotees, but holding vast power. As a result, most of us abide in darkness about the causes but in faith about the results. We trust that our iPads will work, without having the slightest notion how. We believe in studies about psychology, for instance, or theories about climate change about which we understand little or nothing. Modern credulity heaps faith upon faith.
Part of the problem is that almost none of us speak modern science’s language, the language of symbolic mathematics. The Delphic Oracle, in contrast, used the language of poetry. This language may have served from time to time to save the Pythia’s skin. But it also did something more. It offered insights. Poetic insight is an attempt—perhaps always imperfect—to grasp in speech the whole of things. It does so through a combination of sound, diction, rhythm, meter, and imagery. It does so in ways that the poet often does not completely understand. It goes beyond reason while also opening a path to reason.
Poetry was crucial to the Oracle. It may also be more important to modern consultants than most realize. If our decisions take place within a whole of things that none of us completely grasp, a poetic “big picture,” coupled with reason, may be as good as it gets. This situation may explain why few consultants are truly “scientific” and why many resemble something more like “gurus.” It may also explain why, even with our practical faith in technology, many people today look for their guidance in the most important matters from popular music, political causes, personal histories, self-help books, not to mention everything “spiritual.”
True, we don’t expect consultants to examine bird’s livers, nor do we burn them alive when we disagree with their advice. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from the Delphic Oracle. Admitting limits to human reason may foster rather than diminish it—even if it remains, as Socrates concluded, nothing great.
Maimonides, The Letter on Astrology, in Medieval Roots of Political Philosophy, Lerner and Mahdi, eds, Ralph Lerner, trs. (Free Press: New York, 1963)
Plato, Ion, in The Roots of Political Philosophy, Pangle, ed., Allan Bloom, trs. (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, New York, 1987)
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, in Moralia Volume V, Frank Babbitt, trs. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1934)
Plutarch, The E at Delphi, in Moralia Volume V, Frank Babbitt, trs. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1934)
Plutarch, The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse, in Moralia Volume V, Frank Babbitt, trs. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1934)
Plutarch, The Obsolescence of Oracles, in Moralia Volume V, Frank Babbitt, trs. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1934)