The Political and the private life in the ancient world: A Contest of Oracles

Oracles were an accepted part of the political and private life in the ancient world, and the most famous of them remained powerful for many centuries. Valuable gifts were bestowed on them by optimistic or thankful inquirers, and lots of the shrines put great riches. Every oracle had its own system of divination. The oracle at Dodona, by way of instance, the oldest in Greece, was an oak tree whose oracles were translated by a priest in the rustling of its leaves, the cooing of doves in its branches, and the clanking of the brass vessels hung from it. The success and reputation of the oracles were as changeable as their approaches, and a distressed inquirer, without prior loyalties involved, might be unsure as to where to turn for support. This was the position where Croesus, the inordinately wealthy king of Lydia from the mid-sixth century B.C., found himself when the strength and ambition of his Persian neighbors grew to alarming proportions under the rule of Cyrus the Great. What threat did Cyrus present to Lydia, and whom would the king of Lydia most profitably ally himself to forestall the threat?

These were important questions confronting Croesus, and he felt the need of oracular assistance. There were six famous ones in Greece and one in Egypt, and each had its own passionate devotees. Croesus therefore decided to approach the issue scientifically, by analyzing the oracles before committing himself. Seven messengers, one to every shrine, were discharged from Lydia on exactly the exact same day and told to present their question just 100 days from the departure date. Each was then to return to Lydia with the response with all speed. In the temple of Apollo, the individual origin of the oracle, traditionally a woman called the Pythoness, sat on a golden tripod over a deep cleft in the rock, chewing leaves of the laurel, sacred to Apollo, and inhaling the fumes which rose around her from the cleft. Her mutterings when presented with a question were feverish and incomprehensible and were interpreted for the questioner, usually in verse, by the attendant priest.

Croesus' messenger had barely set foot in the shrine Once the oracle spoke, without even waiting for his query:

I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean;

I have ears for the silent and know what the dumb man meaneth;

Lo! On my sense there strike the smell of a shell-covered tortoise,

Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb in a caldron

—Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.

This reply was taken back to Croesus, and he unhesitatingly placed his trust in the oracle of Delphi. For after much consideration he had chosen to perform on the day of the test the most improbable act he could think of. And so he had taken a lamb and a tortoise, cut them into pieces, and set them to boil together in a brass cauldron with a brass lid.

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