Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.

But Scott’s also good at identifying how the ancient Greeks weren’t “like us”. There were sceptics – Euripides wrote the best seer was “the one who guessed right” – but he explains how “the Greek world was filled with a ‘constant hum’ of divine communication. … everyone had their ‘preferred’ form of communcation, which could alter depending on the type and importance of the question to be asked. The Athenian general Nicias in the 5th century BC had his own personal see… in the 6th century BC, Peisistratus, the Athenian tyrant, never consulted Delphi, but liked using chresmologoi. Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC liked his manteis to come from Asian Minor…. seers could be incredibly well respoected: Lampon was a seer in the 5th century BC but also a friend of Pericles and responsible for the foundation of Thurii in South Italy. Nicias’s chief seer, Stilbides, was also one of his top soldiers.” (p. 25)

His sources are a mix of the ancient texts, and archaeology, and he’s good at dropping in an ancient story that grabs the imagination, then setting it on the stones still in place today.

Scott can’t, unfortunately, through no fault of his own, recover the lives or experiences at what must have been the fascinating women at the centre of this tale – the oracular priestesses. We learn that the Pythia was available for consultation only nine days a year, and that a 1st century BC author, Diodorus Siculus, reports that originally she was chosen as a young virgin, but after Echecrates of Thessaly fell in love with one priestess and abducted her, priestesses were chosen from women aged 50 and above, although she continued to wear maiden’s clothes in memory of the original tradition. Plutarch in the 1st century AD said that she had to be a Delphian (which sounds plausible) and from among the “soundest and most respected” families – yet this might include peasant families, so it seems likely she would have been a woman of little or no education.

But we do get some fascinating glimpses of women’s lives along the way. I was taken by Polygnota, from Thebes, a harp singer, who arrived with her musician cousin to take part in the competitive musical games of 86BC. But this was the year Athens was captured by Sulla and the games were cancelled. She decided to perform anyway, and the city was so captivated (or possibly so desperate to be cheered) that she was commissioned to play for the city for three days at the price of 500 drachmas, and also awarded civic honours. (p.198) And I was fascinated bt Tryphosa and Isthmia, from the 40sAD,who in games that saw women competing on an equal footing with men, both won running races, the latter “the first of maidens to do so”. (p. 109)

We also learn that by the 1st century AD, when the city seems to have been becoming as much of a tourist centre as a religious one, visitors were horrified by the iron spits that had been dedicated to the temple by the prostitute Rhodopis in the 6th century BC

There’s a short visitors’ guide to the site at the back, and this would certainly As a tourist in Greece many years ago I decided to visit Mycenanaen sites instead of Delphi, and I don’t regret that – they were off the regular tourist trail and I sometimes had them almost to myself – but having read this book, I now feel almost as though I’ve visited.

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