Κατὰ δὲ τὸ μαντήιον τὸ γενόμενον οὐκ ὀρθῶς Κροῖσος μέμφεται. Προηγόρευε γάρ οἱ Λοξίης, ἢν στρατεύηται ἐπὶ Πέρσας, μεγάλην ἀρχὴν αὐτὸν καταλύσειν. Τὸν δὲ πρὸς ταῦτα χρῆν, εὖ μέλλοντα βουλεύεσθαι, ἐπειρέσθαι πέμψαντα κότερα τὴν ἑωυτοῦ ἢ τὴν Κύρου λέγοι ἀρχήν. Οὐ συλλαβὼν δὲ τὸ ῥηθὲν …
According to the oracle Croesus incorrectly blames it for what had happened, for the god Apollo had foretold that if Croesus attacked the Persians he would destroy a great empire. But in the interests of taking wise counsel he ought further to have sent and made inquiries as to whether the god meant Croesus’ own empire or the empire of Cyrus. Not having understood what was said …
Herodotus Histories 1.91.4
King Croesus of Lydia (= today’s western Turkey) relied on the expertise of the oracular pundits at Delphi to make sure he would win the war against Cyrus the king of Persia (= present-day Iran). They gave him their expert opinion … it was just too bad that Croesus didn’t understand what they were telling him, and lost his kingdom (546 BCE)!
Delphi sits halfway between heaven and earth on a mountain side at the top of the Corninthian Gulf in Greece, and the ruins of the more important treasuries, concession stands, athletic stadium and the temple itself are still there for the tourist to see. Indeed, the place has been a major tourist attraction for well over 2000 years.
Although religious in origin, the Delphic Oracle quickly became a political instrument in the hands of ruling cliques, and the priests who oversaw the responsa, or actual oracular pronouncements, more often tended to heed secular urgings than the supposed divine inspiration of the Pythia. She was the priestess to whom Apollo supposedly spoke and who then informed the priests of what the god had spoken, from which information they then fashioned appropriate answers to queries. Since favorable replies seemed markedly dependent on the size of the petitioner’s donative, the oracle acquired immense wealth over the years. But its most striking characteristic was its ability to hedge bets – if you’re in the business of forecasting the future, your credibility is your most precious asset.
Responsa were couched in language of extreme ambiguity, and the ultimate responsibility for interpreting oracular statements lay with the supplicant. Thus, for example, the great Lydian king, Croesus, setting out to vanquish the empire of the Persian Cyrus, first sent to Delphi for assurances from the oracle. Handsomely primed, the oracle averred that if Croesus crossed the Halys river (the border between Lydia and Persia) he would destroy a great empire. Regrettably for Croesus, he thought the empire in question belonged to Cyrus, but, after he had been defeated by Cyrus, the oracle pointed out (see epigraph) that it had meant his, Croesus’, empire all along. Too bad Croesus had misinterpreted! Once again, it had foretold the future accurately; it could hardly be blamed that human understanding of its predictions was wanting. Not only was its reputation intact, but even enhanced.
Washington D.C. sits halfway between illusion and reality on the side of a river at the head of an offshoot of Chesapeake Bay in North America, and important government buildings, stadia and national shrines are there for any tourist to see. Indeed, the area has been a major point of interest for tourists some 200 years.
Although he (or she) has his (or her) likenesses to the ancient priest at the oracle, today’s economic and political expert in Washington hardly has as spectacular a record. Where the ancient priest went into the inner sanctum to ‘consult’ the Pythia, today’s expert consults the mathematical models on his (her) computer. Each, it will be noted, is known on occasion to have served the immediate interests of temporal powers; each is remunerated on a baronial scale; each first gives his (her) own ‘input’ to oracle or computer and then extracts from it an ‘output’. Is that a conflict of competing interests? or superstition? a function of public gullibility? or just a cushy deal? Like the chastened Croesus, we have only ourselves to blame for not being more cautious in our advertence to the Siren song of blandishing ‘experts’.
Both oracular priest and expert pundit, it must be glumly admitted, have about the same effect on the actual course of events, and both answer a need — for prior insight about the future — firmly anchored in human consciousness, no matter how ancient or modern.
This whole Delphic setup has a certain contemporary flavor to it, I think.
In some ways, perhaps we really haven’t come that far.