The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak

By Sinos, Rebecca H. | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak


Sinos, Rebecca H., The Historian


The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak. By Richard Stoneman. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 270. $35.00.)

In a world well aware of the limitations of human knowledge, consulting the gods was a natural part of planning. The author's survey of Greek oracles and other forms of divination reveals the range of possibilities available to Greeks in need of divine advice or knowledge over more than a thousand years. It is a lively tour, with comparisons to oracular practices in other times and places to allow some sense of what is and is not unusual about Greek practices. It is not written with the specialist in mind, but the wealth of information and insights assembled here will offer new perspectives on the subject to most readers, including classicists.

The tour begins with Delphi and the oracles concerning Oedipus. The oracle telling Laius that he will "die at the hands of his son" contains no "if" clause. Is it, then, beyond possibility for him to change this fate? Could the god himself avert this fate? These questions are central to someone receiving a proclamation of the future; the case of Oedipus becomes not only the subject of later philosophical discussion but also a ground for dismissing the whole oracular enterprise as folly, as becomes apparent in Richard Stoneman's discussion of ancient scepticism. But, even at Delphi, the response to Laius is unusual; most responses forecasting the future were conditional, providing hope that correct interpretation of the condition might produce a desirable result. And often the consultation at Delphi was simpler, skirting the cryptic words of the god by asking for simply a yes or no answer.

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