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The oracle of Apollo at Delphi

In the 7th century BC many of the Greek city states begin to make a habit of consulting the oracle at Delphi, established in the previous century as a shrine of Apollo. The reputation of the Delphic oracle has been one of brilliant ambiguity. Romantic historians have built up an enticing image of the priestess mouthing her pronouncements in a state of trance while mysterious vapours hiss from crannies in the ground.

To the distress of those who relish the incomprehensible, modern research suggests that the reality was both more ordinary and more believable. Indeed most visitors do not so much consult the oracle as bring a decision to Delphi for approval.

The mouthpiece of Apollo at Delphi is his priestess, known as the Pythia (from Python, an earlier name for Delphi). When making her pronouncements she sits on a tall three-legged stool, with male priests beside her. Sometimes the questions concern proper religious procedure, such as which gods the suppliant should sacrifice to. This is a natural question to ask at a shrine, and the priestess's replies tend to be conservative - in effect, do what it is the custom to do.

Where the questions are political, it has often mystified people that the priestess and her advisers can be sufficiently well informed to pronounce.

In those political questions and answers which have survived, the answer in most cases repeats the wording of the question. Thus the questioner can engineer his own answer.

A typical example is the question put by the king of Sparta in 388 BC. 'Is it sanctioned not to accept the Argive truce, which they offer not at a proper time but whenever the Spartans intend to invade?'. The wording makes plain what the king wants to do (reject the truce). He is asking not for advice but for official sanction, and he duly receives the answer: 'It is sanctioned not to accept a truce unjustly offered'.

It is significant also that the Spartans are generous friends to Delphi. Like any religious institution, the Delphic oracle relies on the support of its followers. In so far as political considerations do influence the answers, the considerations are those of Delphi.

There remains the question of the famous ambiguity. The best known example is the question put by Croesus, king of Lydia: 'Should I make war on the Persians?'. The answer is: 'If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great realm'. This persuades Croesus to attack. He loses the war. The realm referred to was his own.

This could be a useful oracular response to any question about waging war. But it is first recorded more than a century after the time of Croesus, and it looks like a typical paradox of the kind relished in folklore - a detail conceived in hindsight and fashioned into a satisfying story.

There is a shorter gap, of only about forty years, before the first mention of the answer supposedly given to Athens (that she should rely on a 'wooden wall' against the Persians). But this too has the marks of hindsight rather than oracular brilliance. The walls of Athens fail. The ships of Athens prevail. There is the opportunity for a pleasing riddle with 'wooden wall' as the answer. It will quickly do the rounds in the aftermath of victory.

All the ambiguous answers by the oracle are from the early centuries, when there is no contemporary evidence. From about 430 BC contemporary evidence is available, and the answers given are straightforward. It seems clear that the real function of Delphi is one common to great religious centres - to provide reassurance to the believers.

The oracle declines in influence in the Hellenistic Age. Its accumulated treasure is appropriated by the Romans. And it has ceased to have any influence by the time Christianity becomes the official religion of Greece. But the temple ruins at Delphi, in their beautiful setting, remain among the most evocative of ancient sites.

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