In 481 b.c. four oracles were delivered to the Greeks by the Pythia on the subject of
the imminent Persian invasion led by Xerxes. Herodotus quotes all four of them,
probably some forty to fifty years after they were first spoken. He treats these oracles
as essential evidence for understanding the motives and decisions of the
Greeks, and he artfully places them at key points in his narrative. Indeed, one
might even say that he uses them to help structure the narrative in book 7 of his
history. One oracle was given to the Argives, one to the Spartans, and two to the
Athenians. No one seems to have commented on this before, but the style and
imagery of these four oracles are strikingly similar; so similar in fact that I want
to suggest that all four were composed by the Pythia whose name was Aristonice.
It is also possible that all four were delivered on the same occasion, since, as mentioned
above, in Plutarch’s day at least oracles were given only on one day each
month. The oracle to the Spartans runs as follows (Hdt. 7.220):
But as for you, oh inhabitants of spacious Sparta,
either your great very famous city is plundered by the descendants of Perseus,
or not, but the land of Lacedaemon shall mourn for a slain king, from the race
of Heracles.
For neither the strength of bulls, nor of lions, shall stop him face to face;
for he possesses the strength of Zeus. And I say that he shall not be stopped
until one or the other of these things he has utterly torn and divided.
This may be a very clever prophecy, but it is certainly very bad poetry. It might
seem outlandishly subjective to pass such a judgment, but Plutarch has one of his
speakers make this very point in his dialogue The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given
in Verse. One of the professional guides has just read out a verse response that was
recorded on stone, and this prompts the visiting philosopher Diogenianus to comment
that he had often wondered at the barrenness and cheapness of the verses in
which the oracles are delivered (Mor. 396d): “Although the god is leader of the
Muses, . . . we observe that most of the oracles are full of metrical and verbal errors
and barren diction.”
Literary quality aside, the oracle is clever because it refuses to succumb to a single
interpretation. Either a Spartan king will die or the city will be sacked; but when
and by whom is left intentionally unclear. The “descendants of Perseus” could be
either Persians or Argives, inasmuch as the Persians claimed Perses, the son of
Perseus of Argos, as their ancestor (or so Xerxes claimed). The Persians and the
Argives were Sparta’s two bitterest and most powerful enemies at this time, and the
oracle can be taken to refer to either of them. But who is it that has the strength of
Zeus? The “him” (to;n) in line 5 is grammatically obscure: it might refer to the king
of Persia, but not necessarily so. As in the oracle given to the Athenians that is
quoted below, it could refer to “fierce Ares.” Obscurity and polyvalence are features
that can help to render an oracle socially and politically useful. Nonetheless, this is
poetry of a very low order (as explained in the note below).
How can one best explain these stylistic features of the oracle, and in particular
the banality of the language? It is not, I would argue, by positing the existence of
a second-rate male poet, who should have had the time and the training to produce
something rather more polished. The most economical explanation is that these are
the words of a person in a high state of mental agitation: the thought is disjointed,
the syntax obscure, the meter rough, and the vocabulary both simple and repetitious.
If these are not the precise words of the Pythia in 481 b.c., then they are a superb
imitation of what a genuinely ecstatic woman would have uttered. The closest parallel
in literature is Aeschylus’s Cassandra in her long exchange with the chorus at
Agamemnon 1072–1330. While possessed she sings in lyrics but reverts to iambics
(the meter of everyday speech) when in a normal mental state. Aeschylus has modeled
her dialogue upon the type of disjointed speech uttered by the historical Pythias
of his own time, but with this difference. Cassandra’s speech may be vivid and
difficult to understand in terms of image and syntax, but the poetry is of a high
order, and her vocabulary is extremely rich and varied. Herodotus’s Pythia reveals
to us what prophetic speech was like in practice.
The opening words of this oracle to the Spartans (“But as for you/to you”) suggest
that it follows closely upon another response. The most obvious candidate is the
first of the two oracles that were given to the Athenians, since the stylistic and emotional
registers of these two oracles are indeed very similar. The authenticity of the
second oracle to the Athenians, the one that mentions the wooden wall, is doubted
by most modern scholars. But the language of the oracle suggests otherwise. For
instance, it contains the phrase “the land of Cecrops” (an early king of Athens),
which is similar to “the land of Lacedaemon” (the hero after whom the land and city
were named) in the oracle given to the Spartans. However that may be, let us concentrate
on the first Athenian oracle, quoted by Herodotus at 7.140:
Oh wretched ones, why do you sit here? Flee to the ends of the earth,
abandoning your homes and the topmost head of your city round like a wheel.
For neither the head remains fixed nor the body,
nor the feet below nor indeed the hands, nor is some part of the middle left,
but they are unenviable.
For fire and fierce Ares are casting it down, driving a Syrian chariot.
He shall also destroy many other fenced cities and not yours alone;
and many temples of the immortal gods he shall give to ravenous fire,
those that somewhere now stand streaming with sweat,
quivering with fear, but black blood has been poured down over the
topmost roofs,
having foreseen the necessity of evil.
But go out of the inmost shrine, and spread your heart over with evils.
This is another example of a famous oracle whose poetic quality is spectacularly
dismal. In particular, several features of the syntax and grammar are arresting and
peculiar. First of all, there is the alteration between singular, plural, and dual (referring
to two people) in the way that the Pythia addresses the inquirers. This cannot
be a matter of metrical convenience; rather, it is indicative of a mind that is in an elevated
state of consciousness and is not focused on the physical presence of the
inquirers themselves. Second, there is a rapid and not quite logical or grammatical
switch of striking images, from burning temples to sweating statues to dripping
blood that can foresee the future. That last image is so bizarre and illogical that
scholars have suggested that “fore-seen” (proi>dovn) must be a confusion for “foreshown”
(profai`non). Blood can serve as a portent that reveals in advance some
evil, but can it also foresee that evil? In the logic of everyday speech and action it
cannot, but in the logic of oracular speech and image it obviously can.
The much shorter oracle that was delivered to the Argives bears comparison to
its longer companions (Hdt. 7.148):
Hateful to your neighbors, but dear to the immortal gods,
holding the spear within, sit, being on your guard,
and guard the head. The head shall preserve the body.
Here again the poverty of vocabulary (the verb meaning “to guard” is used twice:
pefulagmevno~/pefuvlaxo), as well as the obscurity of the subject of the main
verb, is striking. Who is the addressee? Is it Argos personified as a male person,
holding a spear, sitting on the ground, and protecting his head? Or is it the body
politic, the political community, that is being personified? If the latter, then this
metaphor of the body politic is repeated from the first oracle given to the Athenians.
If we had a larger body of oracles from the early fifth century, we would probably
see the Pythia using a repertoire of images and expressions that were appropriate
to certain situations. They would leave the poetic fingerprint of a particular
prophetess, whose name might well have been (indeed probably was) Aristonice.
Not all Pythias, of course, would have been equally good at versifying extemporaneously
while in an altered state of consciousness. That fact may alone be
sufficient to explain why verse oracles were more common at some times and periods
than at others. However far-fetched a conclusion this may seem to modern
Western scholars, it too is corroborated by the oracle centers of modern Tibet. The
Tibetan lama and scholar Lobsang Lhalungpa, himself the son of a former Chief
State Oracle, when asked about the language of the responses, said: “Most ordinary
oracles spoke in a simple local dialect, whatever it was. But the Chief State Oracle
and some of the high oracles—there were quite a number of them—often
answered in versified form. Some of the Chief State Oracles are known for their
poetic answers. Others were less poetic, but they all tended to be. I have compared
some of the sayings or answers of Chief State Oracles. One was so eloquent, so
beautiful—really poetic. Others were poetic, but not to the same degree. Individual
traits do come out.”