Apollo’s Ethylene

Peter Green

  • Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World by Michael Scott
    Princeton, 422 pp, £19.95, February 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 15081 9

Delphi offers one of the most extraordinary, paradoxical and, for many rationalists, embarrassing success stories from ancient Hellas. It was the centre, the omphalos, or navel, of the civilised world and, as tradition had it, enjoyed the special protection of Apollo. It hosted – along with Olympia, Nemea and the Isthmus – one of Greece’s four major athletic festivals. Diplomats found it, like modern Switzerland, a useful place to exchange political information and conduct secret negotiations. Its wealthy religious dedications and treasuries, made by leaders from all over the Mediterranean world, from Cyprus to Marseille, brought celebrities, consultants and visitors by the thousand. Yet what, for almost a millennium, guaranteed Delphi’s status – formed its raison d’être was its unique oracular function, delivered by a priestess, the Pythia, who in a very literal sense behaved as the Vox Dei, uttering what purported to be the words of Apollo.

Among the hundreds of oracles that flourished throughout the Greek world, Delphi carried by far the greatest prestige over the longest period, and was also remarkably free from accusations of fraudulence. There is only one confirmed case in Delphi’s history of the Pythia being bribed, by the Spartan king Kleomenes, and that isolated incident caused a scandal: as late as the second century CE the travel-writer Pausanias could still maintain that ‘as regards the corruption of the oracle, we know of no one whatsoever, except for Kleomenes, who even attempted it.’ Not even the Christians charged Delphi with fraud: they claimed that it was the Vox Diaboli, and worked hard to put it out of business.

For obvious reasons, once popular claims that the gods are deceivers, or that the ‘voices’ are those of false gods or demons, are heard less often these days. On the other hand, the idea of the Delphic Oracle as a clever political scam, run by cynical realists as a financially profitable business, is very much flourishing. The fashionable term for this operation – which Michael Scott in his new study mentions approvingly more than once – is ‘management consultancy’. In other words, the religious element has been, as far as possible, leached out of the concept. Since we in Europe and the United States have been educated to regard Olympian polytheism as amusing nonsense, this process was virtually inevitable. We have got into the habit of treating the Greeks as pioneer logicians par excellence, busily rationalising mythos into logos at every turn, and so we tend to assume (despite the salutary lessons of E.R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational) that our kind of scepticism about such things as oracles must have been generally shared by them too, especially by Athenians. Such an assumption is about as securely based as those evil demons progressive thinking has so blithely trashed.

As Hugh Bowden reminds us in Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle (2005), democratic Athens was neither individualistic, liberal, nor secularist; it had several similarities to modern fundamentalist societies. The will of the gods was paramount, and largely determined through divination: the few who challenged such views risked serious civic displeasure, and usually camouflaged their opinions (not unlike some oracular pronouncements) in a kind of open-minded ambiguity. As Xenophon has Socrates point out, there was always a percentage of human or natural events that lay beyond the current reach of rational intelligence: plague, drought or the outcome of a war. Such things were seen as falling within the province of the gods, and dealt with by divine action. Since the gods, like fate, were considered highly unpredictable and, worse, given to mean-spirited treatment of mortals, they had to be placated, most often with lavish sacrifices.

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