Micah Gould


Oxford Readings in Greek Religion

Chapter 4: Greek States and Greek Oracles

by Robert Parker


"The influence of oracles on the life of Greek states has long been a controversial theme." (pg. 76)


"To what extent were Greek states prepared to cede to the god an important share in the decisions that affected their own interest?" (pg. 76).


I. Introduction

a. Consultation of an oracle is the most powerful of several forms of divination

b. Decision to consult an oracle put the reigns of a state into the hands of a divine charioteer

c. Elements to be examined

II. General Divination

a. Normally used as a guide to action not necessarily as a means of clarifying the future for curiosity's sake

b. Normal questions are limited to a conventional range of problems

c. Divination helps to put the consultant into action by providing a means of justification that is objective and authoritative


d. Divination fails if objectivity is not secured

e. Prophets are skilled in inducing those who consult them to provide answers to their own questions (e.g. Apollo's riddling oracles)

f. Arguments about the interpretation of oracles is essential to institution's function

g. Skepticism of diviners supports rather than undermines trust in oracles because failures can be blamed on lack of skill in the diviner

h. Manipulation for personal interests

III. Features distinguishing Delphi

a. Position that Apollo held as "exegete to all the Greeks" seated on the omphalos at the center of the earth

b. Shrine patronized by clients from conflicting states

c. Delphi used as level against other states

IV. Function of Oracles

a. "release from evils"

b. guidance on relations with gods

c. most commonly were consulted on legislative acivity surrounding "the establishment of shrines, sacrifices, and other forms ofcult for gods and daimons and heroes; and also the grave of the dead and the service we must do them to have their favor"

d. propaganda and politics

e. warfare was the perfect sphere for divination because war was very unpredictable and dangerous

i. two types of enquiries with warfare

1. open: used by those states planning to begin a war

2. closed: used by the state who faces a battle or that has been suffering setbacks

ii. epigram on the fallen at the battle of Coroneia : Athenian defeat has "made the fulfillment of oracles certain for all men to heed in future"

1. few military questions put to the gods after the fifth century

a. 421, Athenians restore the Delians because Apollo had told them to

b. 432, Spartans ask if they would benefit in going to war with the Athenians

2. perhaps due to ancestral custom which forbade consultation by one Greek state in war against another

iii. oracles may have moved from warmongers to peacemakers

1. first treaty sent to a god for approval in 356 between Philip and the Chalcidians (propaganda)

f. few occasions where Delphi involved in arbitration between states

g. Other interstate relations

V. Areas about which Oracles were not often consulted

a. Internal politics, legislation and jurisdiction of the state except where these became religious matters

b. Jurisdiction was referred to oracles when it dealt with religious cases, but even then very rarely

VI. Oracles may have had more influence in internal politics at one time

a. gods involved in the making of kings in early Greek society

b. Advice sought about political disorder

VII. Other various oracular inquiries

a. Pythia asked whether Athens should be destroyed

b. inquiries in which gods role as advisor is taken very literally

c. most inquiries were of a preventative nature rather than those regarding a specific forthcoming decision

VIII. Responses

a. usually conservative in cultic matters

b. questions about portents and natural disasters provided opportunity for disruptive answers, yet they were usually appeasing in nature

c. oracles seem to prefer suggesting remedies rather than punishing guilty parties

d. could never be totally sure that gods would respond meekly though because innocent questions could sometimes bring startling responses

e. little information regarding responses to political queries

f. information regarding warfare inquiries is also small and fragile

g. sometimes legend regarding sacrificing a victim to spare a city arises, but never very dependably

h. historians look for signs of bias and partiality in oracles military decisions

i. "spontaneous responses" oracle issued a response unrelated to the question put before it

j. Sparta was often shifted by oracles from areas where normal political processes could not move them

k. In early times oracles were often involved in removing a king from power

IX. Cessation of oracles

a. Oracles loss of authority in political affairs

i. As already stated little evidence for internal politics as an area of oracular divination

ii. After Persian War, Athenian public policy rarely referred to oracles

iii. Questions about colonization end in fourth century

b. Pattern is not concrete

c. Hellenistic kings paid little heed to oracles and their policies were not shaped by oracular guidance

d. Loss of power was not sudden but gradual

i. "For the states there was now a higher authority outside themselves other than that of gods, in the person of the king" (pg 102)

ii. misjudgments are also pointed out

iii. divination loss of power may be due to the fact that other institutions took over its responsibilities

1. oracles generally were seen as the final authoritative word on the absolute rightness of a collective decision

2. replaced by the delegated democracy and trial by jury

a. voice of people becomes as final as the last word of the gods

3. in a democracy the correctness of a decision is confirmed by the fact that it is passed by the general assembly

4. oracle is redundant in a democracy

5. Athens vs. Sparta

6. sphere of divination begins where that of human ability and discernment ends: understanding things genuinely uncontrollable could be aided by divination

7. new skills gained during the fifth century removed some things from the realm of intederminate

i. "light of probability"

iv. oracular degeneration as much due to the semblance of power loss as much as it was to the reality

1. "on important issues men seldom allow divination to stand in their way"

2. few instances can be offered where the oracle actually changed the sequence of events

3. "For an oracle actually to influence affairs was somehow a perversion of its proper nature"


General conclusions:

1. Responses from an oracle were usually based on how you framed your question -- anything could be gained from manipulation of words

2. Oracles very rarely decided an issue without the input of the people -- issue was usually referred back to the people in a more limited form, but they generally decided for themselves

3. Sparta, as opposed to Athens, put more of their faith in oracles probably because, unlike Athens, they lacked a democracy in which popular consensus determined decision.


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