Oracles

Sun Apr 5 20:13:14 2009
There were many different kinds of oracles and methods of communicating with the gods. The oracle at Dodona replied with yes or no answers to questions inscribed on lead tablets and advised on mostly private individuals on everyday matters. (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 114) The oracle at Epidaurus was consulted for medical advice and treatments. Delphi was the most famous and well-known oracle and was mentioned by almost every major classical writer. The Delphic oracle was consulted before most major undertakings like war, founding colonies or major building projects. The sacred priestess, the Pythia, would convey the message of the god Apollo which would then be translated into Homeric hexameter by the priests. Plutarch offers many reasons for the transition from poetic prophecy to prose–perhaps most importantly for the improved clarity of communication. (Plutarch, The Oracles at Delphi) Although it is probably the gradual decline of oral traditions and the rise of widespread literacy.

According to Walter Burkert, the Delphic oracle lost credibility during the Persian Wars as it repeatedly and unequivocally recommended fleeing and surrender and failed to foresee the Greek victories. As a result it was rarely consulted on important political matters yet still kept up a good business in prophecies about marriages, agriculture, trade and commerce. (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 116) By the first century of the common era we hear Plutarch complaining about supplicants consulting oracles about “treasures or inheritances or unlawful marriages” and all manner of “shameful and impious questions.” (Plutarch, Obsolescence of Oracles, 413)

Yet through much of classical era oracles and omens were regarded with great seriousness. Xenophon’s Ten Thousand rarely make a move without a favorable omen. At one point they even risked starvation when the omens were unfavorable for an extended period of time. (Xenophon, Anabasis, 6.4) Burkert offers an interesting justification for their importance. “For a distinction between chance and causal nexus there is at first neither theory nor method; experiments can scarcely be risked. Furthermore the gain in confidence which the signs bring as an aid to decision-making is so considerable that occasional falsification through experience does not tell against them.” (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 111)

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~ by severalfourmany on April 5, 2009.

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