The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi

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The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi by William J. Broad Penguin Press, 2006; $25.95

Long before focus groups and computer modeling came into vogue, a woman (actually a succession of women) known as the Oracle of Delphi was the arbiter of choice for politicians and military planners in ancient Greece. No carnival fortune-teller, she was consulted on important matters of state, from questions of inheritance and taxation to issues of crime, government and war. The Delphic Oracle and her prophecies were extensively documented in classical texts, and so modern scholars have a pretty good idea of who she was and how she did her work.

For nine months of the year, from March through November, the Pythias, a priestess of Apollo, conducted audiences in the temple of the god in 1 )elphi. Seated on a three-legged stool in a holy chamber, she entertained the questions of petitioners. Then, after taking a few breaths of a sweet-smelling gas, or pneuma, which rose from a fissure below her, she would pronounce, normally in verse.

Her words were sage, suggestive, and invariably effective. "Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta." she warned, setting the agenda for a Spartan policy of militarism, physical fitness, and frugality. "Sit in the middle of the ship, guiding straight the helmsman's task," she warned Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, directing him toward a policy of moderation and compromise that served his city well.

Yet as Greece declined and the centuries passed, the temple, shrines, and statues of Delphi fell into disrepair-desecrated by Christian zealots, ransacked by armies, tumbled by earthquakes, buried by landslides. By the late nineteenth century, stories of the Oracle had taken on the flavor of legend. Then, in 1892, archaeologists unearthed the remains of Apollo's temple on the hillsides of Mount Parnassus, under the small village of Kastri. As the dig progressed, most of the ancient descriptions were verified: the temple and its inner chamber slowly emerged. Archaeologists even found a marble slab on which the Oracle's seat may have rested, and a rounded stone, called the omphalos ("navel"), which represented Delphi's place at the center of the world. …