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Dissertation Spotlight: The “Oracular Tale” and the Oracles of the Greeks

the Delphic oracle as interpreted by Anton van Dale in the 1700 edition of his book De oraculis veterum ethnicorum dissertationes duae

Joseph Fontenrose’s The Delphic Oracle (1978) fundamentally reshaped how we think about Greek oracular divination today. In this book, he argued that the literary evidence for ambiguous verse oracles emanating from Delphi is incommensurate with the epigraphic record. In the Histories, an early and prominent source of oracular lore, Herodotus often quotes vague or ambiguous prophetic verses of the Delphic priestesses that point toward unexpected and ironic moments of fulfillments: the “great empire” that Croesus toppled was, unfortunately, his own (1.86.1). Most inscriptions, however, report oracular pronouncements simply as clear statements of fact: “… it is better [for the Praxiergidai] to put the peplos on [the goddess]…” (Sokolowski, LSCG 15). Fontenrose reasoned that the inscriptions were the more reliable witnesses and concluded from his comparison that most of the famous stories about oracles in works of ancient historiography like Herodotus’ were ahistorical.

Following Fontenrose’s conclusion, the feeling now is that the inconsistency between these two bodies of evidence may be explained by the influence of an entertaining and fictional oral tradition that supplanted the historical facts of oracular divination in one way or another. In the most extreme form of the argument, some have even supposed that these stories about ambiguous verse oracles were being perpetuated not because the Greeks were ignorant of the truth, but despite it. Today, we are asked to imagine two entirely discrete worlds in ancient Greece: one of literature and another of reality.

I had been troubled for some time by this neat divide. Herodotus himself seemed very sure of what he knew. His famous story of the Athenians and their “wooden wall” does not spring into the narrative spontaneously. Rather, he uses it to support his emphatic contention that the Athenians saved Greece in the face of fearsome Delphic oracles (7.139). This is a point that could not be sustained if he knew the stories about the oracles to be false.

Herodotus also had been to both Delphi and Dodona and implies that he was familiar with what happened at those oracles. Moreover, he expected that much of his audience, too. “The rite of divination in Egyptian Thebes and in Dodona,” as he says, “happen to be similar to each other” (2.57.3), and “…the prophetess [of Satraean Dionysus] declares oracles just like in Delphi, and there is nothing more complicated” (7.111.2). Such analogies would be incomprehensible without a general knowledge upon which the historian could rely. Whether his tale of the famous “wooden wall” oracle was true in all of its detail or not, it always seemed to me that it would at least need to have been a likely story in order for both Herodotus and his audience to have believed it the way that he himself did. Recent publications could not satisfactorily reconcile their reconstructions of the historical facts of oracular divination with what passed for common knowledge in ancient Greece. So, I began to tug at some of the exposed threads in search of a dissertation topic.

In poring through Fontenrose’s analysis, I discovered important implicit assumptions that undermine the utility of his method of source criticism. He used reports that were roughly contemporary with the time of the oracular consultation as the touchstone by which he could separate fact from fiction in other (literary) sources. Since contemporary reports did not seem to record the same type of oracles as we find in Herodotus, he could sustain the historicity of almost nothing of the tales in the Histories. In making this determination, however, he ended up privileging a perilously small and fragmentary collection of inscriptions and, to a lesser extent, Thucydides. His assumption was that all of the sources were amenable to a simple comparison of quality. All things being equal, the conclusions drawn from this method would have been strong.

On closer inspection, however, I discovered that Fontenrose’s distinction between the trends of “historical” and other (literary) sources was not as uncomplicated as he thought. It was not simply a difference between literary sources reporting verse oracles and “historical” ones reporting clear prose oracles, but also a difference between direct and indirect reports of oracular pronouncements. What he counted as evidence of clear prose pronouncements in “historical” sources are almost entirely indirect reports. His reasoning assumes, though, that these indirect reports bear the wording of oracular pronouncements verbatim and ignores the very real possibility that they could indicate only what the oracle was understood to mean.

Given that Herodotus and his audience knew very well how oracular divination worked, I sought out a method for treating the evidence in a complementary way rather than privileging one particular type of it in order to gauge authenticity. I needed to develop a methodology and a theory that organized the evidence for oracular activity to foster a more sensitive comparison that could still explain how these differences arose in our sources.

 Fragment from Herodotus' Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD.
Figure 1: Fragment from HerodotusHistories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD.

In my dissertation, I propose narratology as the best theoretical tool to interpret the broad array of evidence. Following the work of Lisa Maurizio and Julia Kindt, who have analyzed oracular narratives in similar ways on a smaller scale, my research undertakes a more systematic analysis of the evidence from Herodotus, Thucydides, and the corpus of Greek inscriptions. Through narratological analysis, I show that all accounts of oracular activity resolve neatly into the same basic plot structure consisting of five episodes:

  1. crisis, in which an event induces an uncertainty that requires oracular insight to resolve;
  2. consultation, in which consultants go about the business of seeking, obtaining, and reporting an oracular pronouncement;
  3. conjecture, in which consultants interpret the oracle, conceive an expectation, and formulate a plan;
  4. action, in which consultants act on their plan and attempt to realize their expectations; and
  5. fulfillment, in which the oracular pronouncement is said or thought to be fulfilled, accomplished, or complete in its meaning.

Organizing the evidence in this way allowed me to make important observations about how stories concerning oracles were told. As it turns out, the episodes of this “oracular tale” are also logically, causally, and chronologically linked in the same order wherever they appear. The oracular tale, therefore, was more than just a narrative pattern; it was a culturally significant pattern of thought that allowed for a complex system of implication that narrators could exploit.

The result is that, even in stories where one or more of the episodes are missing, the effect of what is missing can still be felt by the audience, because certain kinds of events necessarily precede and follow others. Relatedly, when analyzing the various ways in which the actions within oracular tales are depicted, I realized that narrators used abbreviated expressions, like “they sent to Delphi,” to abridge their stories and get to their point. Whom they sent was not an important fact to every narrator, and the fact that official delegates (theoporoi) were sent to ask and carry back the oracle could easily be presumed from the context.

In a similar way, to narrate travel to a new city, a movie does not need to depict the familiar processes of checking baggage, shuffling through airport security, and boarding by group. In the movie Snatch (2000), “I’m coming to London,” a slamming taxi door, a man throwing back a preflight shot of whiskey, a Concord taking off, a passport being stamped at Heathrow, and a taxi signal light turning off — all in a mere five seconds of screen time — are enough to convey all the experiences of traveling. The audience can fill in the gaps if it is necessary. Nevertheless, the familiar procedures involved in travelling may have greater significance to the story. In Up in the Air (2009), Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has, through long experience, refined how he moves through the processes of travel from airport security to hotel check-in into an impressively fine science. Both plots are fictional, of course, but they incorporate a real-world procedural narrative in different ways because their emphases are different.

What comes into focus is that differences between accounts of oracular activity need not be due to fundamental differences in how Greek culture practiced versus imagined the matter of oracular divination — indeed, the broad and specific correspondences in oracular tales across the extant evidence suggests that the Greeks matched their words with deeds. Rather, the differences may more convincingly be attributed to the fact that different narrators with different interests shaped the same matter into narratives with different purposes. Some (e.g., F. Carter Philips) have called this shaping “narrative compression.”

Since there are both Delphic and other verse oracles among the inscriptions, and even quotations of metrical oracular fragments in Thucydides that were issued a generation or less before his own time, I argue that narrative compression best accounts for why our evidence appears in the way it does. It was part of accepted cultural knowledge that oracular verse was coming from certain sanctuaries. Narrators could choose to quote an oracle directly, refer to its language indirectly, or report an interpretation of the oracle’s meaning in the place of the pronouncement. It just so happened that Thucydides and the narrators of our epigraphic texts preferred a very compressed style of presentation. But what could have prompted these narrators to prefer this style of presentation over a more Herodotean one?

The generic, rhetorical, and perspectival differences between narrators explain their tendencies well. I argue that the narrators of our inscriptions are concerned with building a consensus around the issue of oracular interpretation and fulfillment. They tend to avoid narrating debates over interpretation or raising doubts concerning the actions that were decided upon. Consequently, they tend to report oracular pronouncements indirectly as straightforward interpretive claims, rather than directly as longer verse oracles, which might risk reopening debate later. These interpretative claims, of course, only came after the meaning of the oracle and a plan of action had been decided upon by a particular community or individual. Herodotus, though, is generally writing well after the time when community consensus regarding oracular fulfillment had solidified. In his stories, therefore, he is freer to draw attention both to disagreements and “failures” in oracular interpretation as powerful moral lessons.

Thucydides’ oracular tales, on the other hand, are typically quite compressed. Consultants appear to receive clear directives from oracles, and they simply obey. Where Thucydides expands his narration, though, he is most invested in emphasizing the episode of fulfillment. His elaboration in such cases is an opportunity for him to debate issues of oracular interpretation and to show that his contemporaries generally reasoned badly when determining fulfillment. He thus provides an interesting counterpart to Herodotus, who is keen in his most famous oracular tales to emphasize the episode of conjecture and sometimes seems to be giving moral lessons about people who interpret oracular divination well or badly.

The central theory and method I have developed for analyzing stories about oracles will, I believe, have broader application elsewhere in Greek and Latin literature. The oracular tale is a facet of the ancient audience’s “horizon of expectation,” and it presents one promising direction to pursue. Studying how narrators have emplotted the episodes of the oracular tale in works of tragedy and comedy, for instance, will help bring into sharper focus the ways that narrators may have manipulated audience expectations and how audiences may have responded to these narratives. I will be exploring these avenues in my future research, and I welcome your company.

Header image: The Delphic oracle as interpreted by Anton van Dale in the 1700 edition of his book De oraculis veterum ethnicorum dissertationes duae.

Daniel J. Crosby's picture

Dan just earned his Ph.D. in Greek, Latin, & Classical Studies from Bryn Mawr College in December 2020. A previous graduate of Fresno Pacific University (B.A. '10, M.A. '13), Dan is now a Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin and Greek at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. His research interests include Greek and Roman history and historiography, religion and mythology, ancient medicine, early Christianity, and the history of textual transmission.

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