Magazine article The Spectator

BOOKS 'Tell It Not in the Future'

Magazine article The Spectator

BOOKS 'Tell It Not in the Future'

Article excerpt

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

by Michael Scott

Princeton University Press, �19.95, pp. 399,

ISBN 9780691150819

Spectator Bookshop, �17.45

'In ancient times . . . hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people . . . the Druids. No one knows who they were . . . or what they were doing. But their legacy remains . . . hewn into the living rock . . . of Stonehenge.'

The unforgettable opening of Spinal Tap's song 'Stonehenge' was much in my head as I read this scholarly history of Delphi. We use the word 'delphic' to mean riddling, ambiguous, difficult to parse.

It applies just as much to the history of Ancient Greece's most sacred site as it does to the pronouncements of its oracle.

No one knows who they were . . . or what they were doing. Almost all the sources for what went on in the sanctuary - how the oracle was consulted, how it was inspired, what it said, who ran it - were compiled centuries after the fact, often with ideological axes to grind, and they contradict each other. So this fastidious book is extraordinarily, and properly, tentative. But it also takes the sensible tack of saying that what was said about Delphi - the meanings that were projected onto it during various phases of its history - is a, if not the, vital part of the story.

What we do know is that Delphi was important: already a 'big player' by the middle of the sixth century BC. This cultic centre - where Apollo was worshipped among a huge number of other deities - was known as the omphalos: the navel of the world. We also know that it was what academics will tend to delight in describing as a site of contestation, in that through its history various interests have fought wars of words about it. Also, wars of war.

The history of Delphi is one of ceaseless reinvention.

This tribe swarmed over it, that citystate rebuilt it, a third hitched its fortunes to it, a fourth occupied everything around it but neglected to sack it, a fifth came and donated a massive golden ox, or similar - and in between it was periodically burnt to the ground, buried under a mudslide or flattened by an earthquake.

For much of its history it was jointly run by the locals and by the Amphictyony - which was, depending on your source and the era, either a sort of panhellenic G8 or 'an ineffective talking shop'. This meant that it was both deeply involved in - and slightly to one side of - the turbulent powerpolitics of its day. In the early phase of colonial expansion, the oracle was consulted about the setting up of new cities. It helped in the only way it knew how:

The oracle is said to have suggested that a fish would point the way, and a boar lead the way, to those founding Ephesus. Aegae, the old capital of Macedon, was to be founded on the spot where its founder first saw goats.

Michael Scott's plausible suggestion is that we should think of it as a sort of ancient management consultant: it would be used to give sacred legitimacy to political decisions. But Delphi was more than just an oracle: the Pythian games held there were an important fixture in diplomacy and prestige.

And as time went on the monumental dedications - the statues and inscriptions and 'treasuries' built by various polities from all over the Greek mainland - were markers of status in a competitive process of what Scott calls 'spatial monopolisation'. …

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