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Page 9

The Great Oracles

 

    Assuredly there is a better way still to read the future; at least so Greeks of earlier ages have believed. Go to one of the great oracles, whereof that of Apollo at Delphi is the supreme, but not the unique, example. Ask your question in set form from the attendant priests, not failing to offer an elaborate sacrifice and to bestow all the "gifts" (golden tripods, mixing bowls, shields, etc.) your means will allow. Then (at Delphi) wait silent and awe-stricken while the lady Pythia, habited as a young girl, takes her seat on a tripod over a deep cleft in the rock, whence issues an intoxicating vapor. She inhales the gas, sways to and fro in an ecstasy, and now, duly "inspired," answers in a somewhat wild manner the queries which the priest will put in behalf of the supplicants. Her incoherent words are very hard to understand, but the priest duly "interprets" them, i.e. gives them to the suppliant in the form of hexameter verses. Sometimes the meaning of these verses is perfectly clear. Very often they are truly "Delphic," with a most dubious meaning—as in that oft-quoted instance, when the Pythia told Crœsus if he went to war with Cyrus, "he would destroy a mighty monarchy," and lo, he destroyed his own!

    Besides Delphi, there are numerous lesser oracles, each with its distinctive method of "revelation." But there is none, at least of consequence, within Attica, while a journey to Delphi is a serious and highly expensive undertaking. And as a matter of fact Delphi has partially lost credit in Athens. In the great Persian Wars Delphi unpatriotically "medized"—gave oracles friendly to Xerxes and utterly discouraging to the patriot cause. Then after this conviction of false prophesy, the oracle fell, for most of the time, into the hands of Sparta, and was obviously very willing to "reveal" things only in the Lacedæmonian interest. Hellenes generally and the Spartans in particular have still much esteem for the utterances of the Pythia, but Athenians are not now very partial to her. Soon will come the seizure of Delphi by the Phœnicians and the still further discrediting of this once great oracle.

 

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