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Performing and Contesting Delphic Oracles in Euripides’ Ion

Lisa Maurizio

Bates College

Euripides’ Ion begins with the arrival of Athenian king and queen, Kreusa and Xuthus, at Delphi where they hope to consult Apollo about their childlessness; it concludes with a prediction about the political fortunes of Athens. Accordingly, much scholarly literature on the play focuses on its political and religious aspects. Recent political readings have considered the play’s treatment of Athenian autochthony and identity, Athens’ relationship with Ionian cities, and colonialism, to name a few (Loraux 1994; Saxonhouse 1986; Hoffer 1996). Religious interpretations of the play consider divine and human relations, especially Apollo’s inscrutability, as suggested by his absence from the play, his seeming fallibility, and his violence towards Kreusa (Burnett 1962; Lloyd 1986; Zacharia 2003). Unlike these readings which consider religious themes in an expansive way, this paper considers closely how the play conveys the confusion and contestation that, in this view, typify the divinatory exchange at Delphi. These features of Delphic divination are often omitted in the streamlined oracular tales found in Herodotus, Pausanias, or Plutarch or in the epigraphic evidence from the fourth century BCE and thus are often unexamined in the scholarly literature on Delphi.

Moving away from functionalist approaches to divination that emphasize social context, anthropologists have increasingly turned to performance studies to examine the internal, dialogic, and semantic aspects of divination (Zeitlyn 2001; Graw 2009; Jackson 2012). These studies have not yet entered into discussions of Euripides’ Ion or Delphic divination. Yet, they offer a way to treat Euripides’ play, not as fiction divorced from religious practices, but as a staging of a divinatory consultation that captures interactions between seer and client that may be both collaborative and hostile, and from which emerge what Wilce calls a “candidate social fact [that] puts some closure on issues” (Wilce 2001). Anthropological approaches that examine how divinatory dialogues offer contingent truths offer new insights into Euripides’ staging of the comic misunderstandings and near tragic reversals in the personal and political fortunes of Ion, Kreusa and Ion. In particular, the ambiguity and conflicting interpretations of Xuthus’ oracle (Nietzel 1988) and the dialogue between the Pythia and Ion offer a glimpse into the messy process of Delphic divination. This paper will canvas this anthropological literature in order to examine these two scenes as both a performance of and commentary on Delphic divination.

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Drama and the Religious in Ancient Greece

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