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The Ancient Oracles

The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Ancient Oracles
    Book Description:

    For more than a thousand years, Greeks from all walks of life consulted oracles for guidance received directly from the gods. This colorful and wide-ranging survey encompasses the entire history of Greek oracles and focuses fresh attention on philosophical, psychological, and anthropological aspects of oracular consultation. It also examines how Greek oracles' practices were distinctive compared to those of their neighbors, especially in Egypt, Babylon, and Israel.

    Richard Stoneman weaves a fascinating historical tapestry, taking into account the different kinds of oracles (healers, advisors, prophets, and others), their most important sanctuaries, debates about them among ancient thinkers, and Christian attacks on them. Delving into the reasons behind the oracles' enduring position at the heart of Greek culture, Stoneman offers fresh insights into pagan religious practice and the history of Greek intellectual and spiritual life.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17213-3
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Richard Stoneman
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Maps
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    In sickness and in fear, in distress and despair, before important life decisions and puzzling quandaries, people seek answers that introspection alone cannot give. The advice of friends may fail, or be no more reliable than one’s own reflections. Even professional advisers may be suspect,¹ and sages, from the Hebrew prophets and the Arabkahinsto GreekmageslikeEmpedocles,² often concerned themselves with revelations rather than practical advice. One seeks an independent assessment of one’s situation and chances. A higher power is required. But in most cultures, from antiquity to the present, people have had recourse to the distant...

  8. CHAPTER 1 Why Did the Greeks Consult Oracles?
    (pp. 5-25)

    One of the most famous of Greek dramas opens with a mission to the Delphic oracle to learn what is causing the mass sickness, or plague, afflicting legendary Thebes.¹ The chorus in Sophocles’Oedipus the Kingexpresses the terror and hope of the suffering citizens:

    Sweet-speaking utterance of Zeus,

    What have you brought from golden Delphi to dazzling Thebes?

    My trembling guts are racked with fear

    hail Healer of Delos

    as I abase myself before you.

    What new or ancient demand are you exacting with the turning years?

    Lord of the light, I pray you to shoot...

  9. CHAPTER 2 Possession or Policy: The Case of Delphi
    (pp. 26-39)

    It is inevitable that we should treat Delphi first, since it was the preeminent oracle of ancient Greece and, perhaps, the reason for the reverence accorded to oracles in general. But, as we shall see, it was strongly atypical in its method of divination. Of the hundreds of oracles in ancient Greece,² Delphi is the only one explicitly associated with spirit-possession, a method of divination known in shamanistic cultures the world over, and which seems also to have been prevalent in ancient Babylonia and premodern China.³ The voice of the god may have spoken more directly at Delphi than elsewhere,...

  10. CHAPTER 3 The Riddles of the Pythia
    (pp. 40-54)

    I turn now from what happened at the oracle to the stories that enshrined what people believed about the powers of the oracle. Herodotus’ story of King Croesus of Lydia constitutes a virtually independent ‘oracular romance’,¹ and raises most of the questions that bedevilled Greek thinking about oracles for the next millennium. Croesus was the most successful of kings and regarded himself as not only the wealthiest but the happiest of men. He was distinguished also for his piety to the gods, and notably for his generosity to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi. He adorned it with many gifts...

  11. CHAPTER 4 From Egypt to Dodona
    (pp. 55-64)

    The oracle of Zeus at Dodona presents a very different image from that of Delphi. Situated on the fringe of the Hellenic world in Epirus (Delphi, by contrast, was officially the centre of the world), it had for Greeks an air of remoteness and strangeness, for all its busy importance in daily life. The site is first mentioned in Homer’sOdyssey(14.327 = 19.296) where mention is made of the oak of Zeus, while inIliad16.235 the poet mentions the priests, the Selloi, ‘who sleep upon the ground and never wash their feet’.¹ Already these references contain several unexpected...

  12. CHAPTER 5 The Gods, the Heroes and the Dead
    (pp. 65-76)

    Wherever you went in ancient Greece you were likely to run across an oracular site. Pausanias in his travels encountered dozens, and there are others he does not mention. Their distribution is rather uneven: for example, there were fifteen oracles in Boeotia (including the ancient one of Tiresias at Orchomenos, visited in legend by Pelops), but only three in Arcadia.¹ The useful tabulation in Trevor Curnow’s book² is sometimes rather optimistic, but draws attention to the prevalence of oracular possibilities even at quite small and obscure shrines. Many of these are associated with Apollo, the pre-eminent oracular god: Abai,³ Hysiae...

  13. CHAPTER 6 The Oracle Coast: Sibyls and Prophets of Asia Minor
    (pp. 77-103)

    Asia Minor is home to some of the oldest oracles in the Greek world. It has a claim to be the heartland of Greek prophetic speech, for this was where the legendary Sibyls originated. According to Pausanias (10.12.1–4), the Sibyl Herophile had been born long enough ago to foretell the Trojan War. ‘She wrote all this while raving and possessed by the god; elsewhere in the oracles she said her mother was an immortal, one of the nymphs on Ida, but her father was a man.’ He quotes lines in which she claims her home town as Marpessus in...

  14. CHAPTER 7 Dreams and Healing
    (pp. 104-131)

    All human beings dream. In dreams the mind, or soul, seems to wander beyond its bodily confines, and anything seems to be possible.¹ Such strange things happen, it is difficult to believe they do not carry a meaning; and from these it is a short step to the idea that the gods send dreams in order to speak to us. Most Greeks before the time of Xenophanes² will have held this view, as did the peoples of Mesopotamia.

    Dreams and oracles are often considered in the same breath, by Plato for example (Apology33) as well as, eight centuries later,...

  15. CHAPTER 8 Dicing for Destiny
    (pp. 132-148)

    Humbler individuals could not perhaps afford to visit the great oracles, even the healing ones; yet anxieties about the future and what to do pressed on them as much as on the great. As Peter Green has eloquently put it, these were the ‘dilemmas that faced a thinking man in a world where, no longer master of his fate, he had to content himself with being, in one way or another, captain of his soul’.¹ Green is speaking of the growing popularity of ethical handbooks, but the guidance that comes from the gods is not altogether dissimilar. So simpler methods...

  16. CHAPTER 9 Foreknowledge, Fate and Philosophy
    (pp. 149-162)

    As thinkers of the early centuries AD looked back on some eight hundred years of recorded oracular practice, both inscriptional and literary, they began to face the question of how and why oracles, apparently, worked, but also to ask themselvesifthey worked, or if there was some other explanation for their ability to foretell the future. Further questions arose, about the utility of such foreknowledge. A number of philosophers focused on the question of Fate, and their deliberations were strongly influenced by the need to fit a belief in the efficacy of oracles into any theory.¹ Stoics, indeed, constructed...

  17. CHAPTER 10 Sceptics, Frauds and Fakes
    (pp. 163-170)

    Despite this intense philosophical and scholarly activity applied to oracles, there were by the second century ad many who took an outright sceptical view of oracular activity. Indeed, if the stories of those who tried to bribe the Pythia, both from Sparta and as late as Heraclides Ponticus, are to be trusted, cynicism had set in much earlier. Scepticism could be consistent with belief in the gods: Xenophanes’ scepticism (epigraph) in the sixth century bc implied that only the gods have perfect knowledge, while humans cannot know that they know anything.¹ We can only know what the gods tell us...

  18. CHAPTER 11 New Questions for the Oracles: Platonism and Theology
    (pp. 171-189)

    Late in the first century ad, Plutarch (c. ad 45–120) held office as a priest at Delphi. In several of his treatises he discussed the history and operations of the Delphic oracle and the sanctuary in general.¹ There was already a long-standing historical and antiquarian interest in oracles and divination. During the fifth century bc in Athens, oracle collections had begun to circulate widely.² Many were attached to the names of particular authors – the legendary Musaeus and Orpheus, as well as the real people Onomacritus and (perhaps) Bacis (though this may have been a generic name like Sibyl)....

  19. CHAPTER 12 ‘Ecstatic Predictions of Woe’: The Sibylline Oracles
    (pp. 190-198)

    If the oracles that Porphyry collected were outspokenly opposed to the new religion, the same cannot be said of theSibylline Oracles, which were being composed in Greek at about the same time. These, despite their superficial similarities (in Greek, in hexameter verse), emerge from a quite different thought-world and social milieu from that of the Neo-Platonists. The Sibyl, though of Greek origin (chapter 6), took on a new life in the world of Rome as a purveyor of a theological interpretation of history. The best-known appearance of the Sibyl in literature is when she conducts Aeneas to the Underworld...

  20. CHAPTER 13 Silencing the Oracles
    (pp. 199-219)

    The Christian culture that succeeded pagan religion in the fourth century ad had a complex relationship with the classical past. The century between Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in 312 and Theodosius’ abolition of pagan rites – including games and every form of worship – in 395 saw heated debate between the defenders of the old religion and the proponents of the new. The stakes were high. Pagan culture was all of a piece, and to demolish its religion was also to break up its societal bonds, its literary traditions and its whole shared frame of reference. T.S. Eliot once wrote:...

  21. CHAPTER 14 Conclusion
    (pp. 220-224)

    The Christian claim was that their religion was of a new kind, superior to and driving all value out of the religion of the pagan Greeks and Romans. During most of the time when modern scholars have studied the religion of the ancients, there has been an underlying assumption that this was indeed the case, that pagan religion was somehow a lower evolutionary form of religion, lacking in the personal and interior qualities of modern faiths such as Christianity and Islam, and perhaps even Judaism. Only in the last two generations (since the work of Dodds, for example) has there...

  22. Notes
    (pp. 225-252)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-263)
  24. Index
    (pp. 264-270)