Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Seven: Oracles for the Athenians

Priestess of Delphi, John Collier (1891)
Picture source

For the Athenians had prepared to consult the oracle by sending sacred delegates to Delphi, who, after performing the usual preliminaries at the sanctuary, entered the inner shrine and took their seats. The Pythia, whose name was Aristonike, gave them the following oracular response:
Why sit so idle, you poor wretched men? To the ends of the land you should flee.
Leave your homes, leave the heights of your circular fortress,
For neither the head nor the body remains in its place,
Nor the feet underneath, nor the hands nor the middle
Is left as it was, but now all is obscure. For casting it down
Is fire and Ares so sharp on the heels of a Syrian chariot
And he will destroy many cities with towers, and not yours alone;
And into the devouring fire he will give the temples of eternal gods,
Which now drip with sweat and shake in their fear
As blood gushes darkly from the tops of their roofs,
Forseeing the force of compelling disaster.
Now step out of this shrine, and shroud over your heart with the evils to come.

When the sacred delegates of the Athenians heard this, they felt that they had met with the greatest disaster; and as they were giving themselves up for lost over the evils predicted by the oracle, Timon son of Androboulos, a man of Delphi and a prominent citizen equal to their best, advised them to take olive branches and to consult the oracle a second time, this time as suppliants. Following his advice, the Athenians went again and said to the god, “Lord, deliver to us a better oracle concerning our fatherland out of respect for those branches which we carry, coming here as suppliants, or else we shall not leave your shrine but shall remain here until we die.” After they said this, the prophetess gave them a second oracle, as follows;

Unable is Pallas to appease Zeus Olympian
With copious prayers, with counsel quite cunning.
Now to you once again my word I shall speak, making it adamantine:
The rest will be taken, all lying within the boundary of Kekrops
And that of the hollow of sacred Cithaeron.
But a wall made of wood does farsighted Zeus to Tritogenes grant
Alone and unravaged, to help you and your children.
Do not await peacefully the horse and the foot,
The army gigantic that comes from the mainland;
Withdraw, turn your backs, through someday you still will meet face to face.
O Salamis Divine, the children of women you will yet destroy
While Demeter is scattered or while she is gathered.

- paragraphs 140 and 141, Book Seven, from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis

It didn’t dawn on me until this reading of The Histories that the temple at Delphi, in addition to being a religious shrine, could double as an intelligence market or clearinghouse as leaders from around the Mediterranean area sent delegates to find out about the advisability of plans and actions. The priests would not only receive information in advance of actions but through their oracles they could influence those actions. Herodotus never questions the infallibility of the gods but he makes it clear in several places that the priests are fallible and subject to human weakness.

The first oracle given to Athens paints about as bleak a picture as possible. I like the image that other translations use of the “ravening fire” awaiting their temples—how could you not think yourself lost after hearing such an oracle? Timon’s insistence on a second oracle gives them some hope, if only they can figure out what the “wall made of wood” is that will save them. Themistokles interprets the oracle correctly: the wooden walls are the Athenian fleet and predicts that any battle that occurs at Salamis will be favorable to the Greeks. Years earlier, Themistokles had proposed that the Athenians build 200 war ships when they found a new vein of silver at the Laureion mines, although Thucydides hints that the new fleet was built in expectation of a Persian attack. (We’ll come back to Themistokles in other posts since Herodotus’ portrayal of him reflects a complex and conflicted view.)

The section leading to the battle at Thermopylae is a wonderful read, full of effective narrative techniques that borrow from Homeric epic. I will delve more into the epic aspect of the Thermopylae account in a separate post, but I wanted to look at the use of these oracles. Herodotus uses these oracles to help heighten the tension of the impending danger that Athens and other Greek poleis face.

Before the previous invasion of Greece, Darius sent heralds to various cities that had submitted to him in order to test their loyalty. This leads to an inconsistency. Athenian representatives had offered submission in order to form an alliance with Persia about 16 years earlier than Darius' heralds' trips, although those representatives were reprimanded for exceeding their commission upon their return to Athens. But there is no word of Sparta ever submitting to Persia. Why would Darius have sent representatives to Sparta in 491 BC, since Sparta could not possibly confirm what had never been offered? I highlight this inconsistency because in paragraph 133 Herodotus raises the point that Xerxes did not send heralds to either Athens or Sparta in the run-up to the war in 480 BC because each city had killed the Persian heralds which Darius had sent in 491 BC. The Athenians cast the visiting heralds into a pit while the Spartans threw the visiting heralds into a well. In addition, Herodotus could have told this story back in Book Six where it would have been a chronological fit, but he waits until here to reveal it in order to further demonstrate the heightened tension. In not sending heralds to Athens or Sparta, Xerxes makes it clear that capitulation is not an option--there will be no mercy.

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