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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Delphic Oracle

By William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

[Born in New Bedford, Mass., 1853. Died in Upper Darby, Penn., 1941. Delphi: the Locality and its Legends.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1889.]

THE PRIESTESSES were originally young maidens; but when one of them had proved susceptible to other influences than Apollo’s inspiration, a widow over fifty years of age was always selected. In the early lime, and again after the power of the oracle decayed, there was one Pythia only. In the height of Delphi’s fame, three held the office simultaneously. At first, responses were given only on “Apollo’s birthday,” in the early spring; the natural time for seeking augury concerning crops, the opening of campaigns, plans for colonizing, etc. Later, the favorable days were more frequent.

Before mounting the tripod, the Pythia chewed leaves of the sacred laurel and drank from the holy spring, to put herself more fully under the divine influence. No doubt she, as well as those seeking the aid of divination, was further excited by the strange, rich odors, perhaps incense, of which we hear, and by music. If her responses were too incoherent or unpoetical, they were reduced to writing and to hexameter verse by the attendant priests, and delivered, either orally or upon a sealed tablet, to the questioner.

Our chief authorities for the period when the oracle’s influence was at its height are men who sincerely believed in Apollo, and in his guidance of human affairs through the mouth of the inspired Pythia. The attitude of Herodotos, for instance, whose volume is the best mirror of the age and interpreter of its faith, is that of reverent but intelligent belief. He is aware that the priestess has sometimes been corrupted by bribes or other influences; but such sins were detected and severely punished. Some oracles, he also knows, have been forged after the event; but that again only shows how much assistance the supposed sanction of the god gave to the actions of men. He “does not question, and cannot suffer others to question,” the genuineness of Apollo’s inspiration on many occasions.

Thoughtful students of the history of mysticism, ancient or modern, will at least agree that the utterances recorded are not to be hastily ascribed to a systematic cool-blooded scheme of deception. In the earlier days, at least, the priestess appears usually to have been in the condition perhaps best described as a trance. Nor have we the slightest right to doubt the sincerity and good faith even of the attendant priests who caught and interpreted her excited, half-articulate words. They were probably informed beforehand, it may be through something resembling a confessional, of the questioner’s own hopes and desires. Often they knew that the nature of the response obtained might vitally affect the credit and prosperity of the temple and their corporation. Their human judgment, to use modern terms, doubtless influenced more or less consciously their priestly functions. But all this is not saying that the oracle was a mere machine, shrewdly worked to secure personal advantage from the credulity of mankind. It is essential to the comprehension of any religion to start with the assumption of sincerity on the part of priest no less than of people.

  • Not from a vain or shallow thought
  • His awful Jove young Phidias wrought;
  • Never from lips of cunning fell
  • The thrilling Delphic oracle.
  • The litanies of nations came
  • Like the volcano’s tongue of flame,
  • Up from the burning core below.”
  • Even reduced to its crudest form, it is true that successful delusion almost always begins in self-delusion.

    I am appealing for the moment merely to those who assume as self-evident that the ancient oracles were in no sense inspired; but we have, of course, always the happier alternative, of believing that man has never in any age or land been wholly cut off from consultation, in the hour of his need, with the Rulers of life. Again Emerson’s glowing lines will best utter our thought for us:

  • The word by seers or sibyls told,
  • In groves of oak or fanes of gold,
  • Still floats upon the morning wind,
  • Still whispers to the willing mind.
  • One accent of the Holy Ghost
  • The heedless world hath never lost.”
  • For those, doubtless the overwhelming majority, who view the question with utterly incredulous eyes, who would deny the Pythia and the priests any claim to inspiration or even to self-deception, it may be added that they will find much amusement and confirmation of their own opinions in Lucian’s account of Alexander. This “false prophet” organized a private oracle for revenue only, with all the machinery of deceit. There was no doubt whatever about the fraud in that case. Lucian fully exposed it, at the imminent risk of his own life….

    Just how far the political movements among the Greeks were controlled from Apollo’s mountain sanctuary is indeed still subject of debate. There is no doubt that the great German historian Ernst Curtius, trusting to his sympathetic insight into the spirit of Hellenic institutions and character, has sometimes overstepped the broken and uncertain lines of our classic authorities. It is clear, however, that the Delphians enjoyed for many generations the confidence of all Greeks. Thither every republic and monarch turned for guidance in the great crises of their existence. To the servants of Apollo the secret deeds and plans of each must have been truthfully confessed. The information thus gathered by the chapter was undoubtedly transmitted from generation to generation, and formed the basis of an enlightened and patriotic policy in the treatment of Hellenic affairs generally.

    We know that inquiries were often answered at once, without recourse to the god. It may be, indeed, that the decision of the oracle was avowedly only invoked in matters of especial difficulty and doubt: as when the guardians of the temple themselves asked Apollo if they should bury or carry away his treasures, to save them from the advancing forces of Xerxes, and received the lofty reply that the god would defend his own. Perhaps we cannot close this inquiry more instructively than with a quotation from the Memorabilia of Xenophon. We must remember that one of the most devout of the Greek writers is recording words which repeatedly fell from the lips of Socrates, his teacher and friend, who in Delphi, at any rate, fell under no suspicion of heresy, but on the contrary had been declared by the oracle to be the wisest of men.

    “But he said they were mad who consulted the oracle as to matters which the gods permit men to decide by the use of reason…. He asserted that it was our duty to discover for ourselves so much as the gods allow us to find out; but whatever is not made plain for men, that we should endeavor to learn from the gods through divination: for he declared the gods made revelation to those men toward whom they were gracious.”