BMCR 2006.07.13

Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle. Divination and Democracy

, Classical Athens and the Delphic oracle : divination and democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xviii, 188 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0521823730. $25.99 (pb).

This excellent little book challenges many generally accepted views about both Athenian democracy and the Delphic oracle in an attempt to highlight the role religion played in ancient Greek political discourse. Classical Athens and the Delphi Oracle returns to the literary and epigraphic evidence to explore both how the oracle normally functioned during the Classical period and how its predictions shaped the political conversations of democratic Athens.1 Bowden’s (henceforward B.) goal is to offer Delphic consultations as a case study on the central importance of the divine in Athenian democratic decision-making. As such, the book offers a fresh review of both the oracle and Athenian politics. The main question addressed is: “to what extent should religious considerations affect decisions taken by citizens in a democracy?” (1). By suggesting that the ancient emphasis on religious concerns was genuine and not just pretext or political manipulation, B. asks the reader to re-examine the priorities of the Classical Athenians. Using divination as a test case, B. attempts to move beyond the scholarly skepticism, which has dominated modern views and which B. believes has unnecessarily marginalized genuine religious concerns, to approach Athens and Delphi on their own terms.2 B. argues that the trend in comparative politics to concentrate on the mechanics of ancient and modern democracy easily facilitates comparisons between the two but at the same time obscure the fundamentally different social concerns and contexts. For example, to modern Westerners the notion that divine will can and ought to inform governance is seen as inherently undemocratic, perhaps even fundamentalist and autocratic. And because Western scholarship is so rooted in this perspective, our view of ancient democracy can become clouded. Indeed, Bowden cautions that there are more close social comparisons between democratic Athens and fundamentalist societies such as Afghanistan’s Taliban, than the United States or Europe. He observes that both Athens and the Taliban limit women’s activities, make no clear separations between public and private, and strongly encourage mass participation in religious activities. In Athens, B. argues relations with the gods took precedence over other matters and lay behind all decisions. In his view, Athenian democracy is therefore inherently unlike modern secular democratic systems and cannot serve as a model for the modern Western constitution, in which religion and government are legally and conceptually separated. Although B.’s emphasis on the lack of similarities between modern and ancient democracies and the centrality of religion to ancient democratic decision-making offers a useful new perspective, the analogy to Taliban Afghanistan seems stretched and unnecessarily provocative. Unlike Taliban Afghanistan, ancient Athens was known for its intellectual freedom, and the persecution of individuals on religious grounds was extremely rare under the democracy. Moreover, Greek religion was not dogmatic; there was no official code of ethics, or sacred text to shape orthodox decisions, as with Christianity or Islam.

Just as the modern lens has clouded our view of ancient politics, so too has it obscured our understanding of the Delphic oracle. B. argues that in much the same way as they have sidelined the role of the divine in democratic politics, Western scholars have downplayed the importance of Delphi in determining divine will and shaping Greek responses to religious concerns. He attacks the commonly held view that oracles and divination in ancient Greece served merely to reinforce community mores and to shore up legitimate leaders’ authority when making difficult decisions.3 Although the oracle could and did serve this purpose, such emphasis blurs the integral religious role of the oracle itself and only gives it the appearance of outside authority. Put another way: by concentrating on the purely secular elements, scholars have overlooked the religious role of the Delphic oracle in Greek decision-making. In this book B. highlights the religious dimension and shows how Delphi had a long reach in shaping the ways in which humans responded to the divine. B. suggests that the Greeks felt gods were capricious and involved in all matters, no matter how trivial. In order to conciliate these divine powers, so that they will be favorable, even partisan, one needed to discern what they required — Delphi provided this information. Delphi served as the link between humans and the gods. B. argues, contrary to the established view, that oracles were consulted on issues that could not be resolved by human debate, and that these oracles offered clear, succinct unambiguous guidance.

The first three chapters of the book offer a close analysis of the available evidence to explain what the Athenians consulted Delphi on, and under what circumstances. Here, B. examines the process of oracle consultation so as to tease out the mechanics of both divination and the Delphic oracle. The last three chapters explore the ways in which religious concerns affected the history of democratic Athens, in order to clarify the importance of divine will in democratic decision-making.

Chapter 1, “How did the Delphic oracle work?” offers a highly useful review of the mechanics of the Delphic oracle in an attempt to clear away the modern “fog” surrounding the working of the shrine in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. B.’s goal is to debunk the romantic stereotypes that have crept into the conventional perception of the Delphic oracle. He suggests that although the ancients observed the process of oracular consultation as we observe it, they subordinated and incorporated the oracular response into their belief structure (something which we cannot do). Unlike modern scholars, the ancient Greek suppliants did not subject the oracular process to scientific scrutiny and skepticism. They believed. “They believed that Apollo spoke through the Pythia, and because they believed it, their actions were intended to propitiate Apollo” (32). While this chapter reviews the seemingly mechanical subjects of personnel, consultation, and message, the conclusions reached are far from ordinary. Contrary to modern conventional wisdom, B. demonstrates there is no evidence that the Pythia did not speak directly to the suppliant, or that she spoke in incoherent ramblings, or ambiguous terms that had to be interpreted by a Delphic priest into politically appropriate hexameter.4 Indeed, during the fifth century, epigraphic evidence suggests that questions and responses were phrased according to simple formulae: “would it be more profitable or better for us to … ?,” to which the Pythia would respond, “it would be more profitable and better to …” or “it would not be more profitable or better to … ” B. also challenges the argument that “Delphi” consciously manipulated oracular responses for its own benefit, playing on the gullibility of the suppliants.5 He argues that the Pythia, “an uneducated, socially sheltered woman” (28), was free to speak as she wished and therefore acted as a “randomising element which more or less guaranteed that there could be no effective interference from the male political world” (28). Comparison with anthropological data from other oracle-consulting societies lend weight to this argument. It has generally been accepted that the Pythia spoke in verse, or that the Delphic priests turned her utterances into hexameter and then passed them on to the suppliant. B. asserts that the Pythia spoke clearly and plainly in response to carefully prepared questions or choices. He explains the preponderance of verse oracles in Herodotos and other sources as later compositions. After the events prophesied came to pass, poets at Delphi would incorporate both the Pythia’s responses and the subject of the consultation into verse, in order to compete with the widely popular verse prophesies of such seers as Musaios and Bakis. In this way the poet could use hindsight to showcase the prescience of the Delphi and thus further its reputation, by explaining through a discussion of the results, the ways in which the Pythia correctly advised a suppliant. Hence the literary responses in verse are predictions, while the true questions — as represented in the epigraphic record — are phrased as alternate choices between courses of actions. B. argues that it is the “touched up” verse predictions that Herodotos preferred for his Histories.

Chapter 2, “What did the Athenians think of the Delphic oracle?” explores what Delphi meant to the citizens of Athens. This chapter concerns itself primarily with literary analysis of Classical drama (tragedy and comedy) and oratory, though B. does touch briefly on the iconographic record — that is, public and private art. He begins with the assumption that the presentation of the Delphic oracle in drama was understood by the audience as broadly similar to their own experiences of it. Through an analysis of the 34 consultations in tragedy (Appendix 1 lists them in full, together with their context), B. shows that open-ended questions seeking information do not receive answers while those phrased as “what should I do” do get answered. While they might be cryptic, or not instantly comprehensible, no answers from the oracle were deliberately ambiguous. B. suggests that individuals could misinterpret oracles, but it was not Delphi’s purpose to be deliberately ambiguous or misleading. Divine wisdom was difficult, but not impossible to grasp, and it was only the individual’s own flaws and shortcomings that kept him from reading the correct interpretation. B. concludes that ambiguity had a paradoxical role in oracles: ambiguity was essential to the dramatic stories about oracles, and about those who consulted oracles, but was not a feature of how oracles actually worked. For an oracle to stay in business, it had to produce clear, fairly comprehensible predictions. In the end, B. concludes In that both drama and oratory proclaim the same simple message: obey the will of the gods, as dictated by Delphi, and you will prosper.

Chapter 3, “What did historians and philosophers say about the Delphic oracle?” considers how the intellectuals of the fifth and fourth centuries treated the oracle and concludes that Delphi remained consistently important as a source of divine wisdom and guidance. Despite the apparent detail and embellishment of Herodotos and Plato, and the conspicuous disinterest of Thucydides and Aristotle, both historians and philosophers of the period agreed that humans needed to consult the gods about things which they could not intuit on their own. B. is very sensitive to each author’s approach and methodology and guides the reader through the complex interplay between narrative, audience and subject. In both history and philosophy divination and Delphi have a role. For example, B. argues that Herodotos employs oracles to heighten the drama and remind his readers that the gods are involved in human affairs. Thucydides focuses more on human behavior and human choices, yet, when Thucydides writes what B. terms “Herodotean” history, or engages divine subjects, such as the digressions on Kylon, Pausanias and Themistokles (1.126-138), oracles have a prominent role. And even when he is being his most skeptical, Thucydides understands that his readers believe in the integral role of the divine in human concerns, and in the need to interpret divine signals correctly. In his Republic and especially the Laws Plato stresses the significance of oracles in making religious decisions. Plato recognized that divination is necessary to illuminate any subject where human knowledge does not suffice, and since Delphi was the most prestigious source of divination, Plato awarded it a central role. Unlike Plato, who sought to establish an ideal state based on divine principles, Aristotle looked to human realities and trends for inspiration. And for this reason, as with Thucydides, divination receives less attention. Throughout this chapter B. argues persuasively that the emphasis on Delphi’s role in articulating divine will and advising religious decisions must echo contemporary Athenian perspectives.

Chapter 4, “How and why did Athenians consult the Delphi oracle?” addresses problems of evidence in trying to discover the circumstances of an oracular consultation. B. analyzes three examples — the decision over whether to cultivate the Hiera Orgas 6 near Eleusis, Kleisthenes’ creation of the 10 new civic tribes, and the famous “wooden wall” of protection during the Persian invasion of 480 — in an attempt to show the ways in which Delphi affected Athenian public affairs. The Hiera Orgas, a patch of land sacred to Demeter and Kore near Eleusis, on the border between Athens and Megara, had long been disputed between the two poleis and had long lain uncultivated. In the fourth century, the Athenians wrote up two decrees on tin, one saying they would lease the Orgas out for cultivation, the other saying they would leave it protected from farming. One was put into a gold jar, the other into a silver jar. Men were sent to Delphi to ask the Pythia which jar to open. She chose the jar containing the decree advocating protection. That the Athenians would consult and oracle over this is understandable: cultivation of divine territory tugs at the heart of godly matters and as such divine guidance is essential. As for the ten Kleisthenic tribes, B. argues that because they were linked to demi-god heroic patrons, and would ultimately serve as military units responsible for protecting the city, they required divine sanction. The Athenians had to be sure they had picked the most appropriate heroic sponsors. Successful military endeavors were always attributed to the gods — not to give a veneer of political support, as has been seen in the past, but to choose the best superhuman patrons. So Kleisthenes put up a list of finalists and the Pythia chose the wining ten, probably through sortition. As for the “wooden wall,” B. explains the context thusly: Athens would have known that Xerxes was coming after them to punish their role in the Ionian revolt of 499 and the defeat at Marathon in 490, and therefore would have considered an evacuation plan. But evacuation would have involved abandoning the shrines and temples, and the Athenians would not have done this without first seeking divine permission and guidance. Herodotus dramatized the debate and heightened the tension for heroic effect. But the original consultation was clear: should the Athenians abandon their shrines or not? Behind each of these seemingly political or military examples lay an inherently religious question.

Chapter 5, “What did the Athenians ask the Delphi oracle?” analyzes the 25 surviving oracular responses given to the Athenians by the Delphic oracle from 508/7-300 BCE to see what patterns can be discerned (organized chronologically in Appendix 2). He groups the extant accounts according to Fontenrose’s categories: plague, famine, drought, catastrophe; war or casus belli; portents, prodigies; problems of rulership; welfare of city or state; desire to plan or found a colony; worship of the gods; and general religious problems.7 In every case B. demonstrates that even though scholars have divided individual consultation by subject categories each question is fundamentally concerned with a relationship with the gods. In all 25 examples the Athenians are concerned with discerning the will of the gods towards a particular action or event. For example, the question about the Great Plague of 430 seeks to uncover the ritual pollution that caused it. The many questions about war revolve around winning the support of various gods or heroes in order to win the war.

Chapter 6, “Why did the Athenians (and other Greek cities) go to war?” examines the subject of war in more detail through a discussion of the reasons why Athens went to war. B. argues that one cannot understand Athenian democracy until one understands Athenian attitudes towards war, since Athens under democracy was almost constantly at war, from its inception in 508/7 to its end as a truly independent entity in 323. B. focuses on specific, often regional or local quarrels to show the rationale underpinning military action. Most illustrative is his discussion of Delphi’s break (with Spartan assistance) from the Phokian confederacy in 449 and its subsequent restoration by Athens in the following year.8 Athens elevated the restoration of the Delphic shrine and sacred lands to the Phokians to the status of a holy war, and even took up the title “defender of Delphi.” In the same way, Athens again undertakes a holy war to protect divine property closer to home — the Hiera Orgas.9 Indeed, the Hiera Orgas and its abuse by Megara prompted the issuing of the Megarian Decree and thus the rationale for the Great Peloponnesian War. Through similar examples, B. argues that Athens (and other poleis) regularly wove religious justification — justified and articulated through consultation of the Delphic oracle — into military action.

This is a well written and researched book with a clear message. B.’s observations on the mechanics and rationale for consulting the oracle at Delphi in the Classical period do much to deepen our understanding of the role the divine played in public and private life. And any criticisms this reviewer has stem more from a desire for further analysis than from problems with B’s central thesis and approach. Nonetheless, some themes and subjects seem insufficiently developed. For example, chapter 6, where B. argues that the Athenians and others went to war for religious reasons seems incomplete. As it stands, the few examples offered make it difficult to see that religious concerns were in fact the true motivators for the conflicts of the Classical period rather than simply pretexts under which leaders might sell a costly war to the voting public. More analysis of the well-studied fourth century scared wars could help contextualize the fifth century data that B. assembles.10 Furthermore, in many places throughout the work, B. hints that religion is important to democratic Athens because of the inherent risk involved in the agricultural lifestyle and agricultural concerns of the Athenians. Unfortunately, this important and insightful theme is not pursued. But such criticisms are minor when compared to the book’s strengths. In the end, this affordable monograph ($25), with its clean text, useful appendices, full bibliography, and fine (and extensive) English translations will surely become a standard reference on both the Delphic oracle and Athenian society.11


1. Two useful appendices organize the extant texts by consultant, question posed, answer and date.

2. For recent scholarly work that tends to downplay religious issues in Athenian politics see J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989; The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996; and J. Ober and C. Hendrick (edd.), Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies Ancient and Modern, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

3. See C. Morgan, Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

4. See H.W. Parke and D.E.W. Wormell, The Delphic Oracle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956 for the traditional view of the Pythia.

5. See W. G. Forrest, “Delphi 750-500 BC,” Cambridge Ancient History, second ed., vol. III.3, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 305-20, for a discussion of the political agenda of Delphi.

6. B.’s choice to translate hiera but not orgas is curious. It is commendable that he has translated Greek terms in order to reach a wider audience, but orgas is hardly a recognizable word in English. “Sacred Meadow” would have aided the general reader much more than “Sacred Orgas.”

7. J. Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.

8. It is surprising to see no reference to Jeremy McInerney’s valuable monograph on Phokis, The Folds of Parnassos: Land and Ethnicity in Ancient Phokis, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999, which deals at length with relations between the Phokian Koinon and Delphi.

9. B. could surely have strengthened his case had he followed this theme of Athens, sacred land and sacred wars further. See T. Howe, “Pastoralism, the Delphic Amphiktyony and the First Sacred War: the Creation of Apollo’s Sacred Pastures,” Historia 52 (2003) 129-46, for a full discussion of Delphi, sacred wars, and the role of sacred lands as casus belli.

10. In his bibliography, B. notes the work of J. Buckler on Philip and the fourth sacred war but does not use this research, nor Buckler’s earlier article on the third sacred war in his discussion of religious wars in chapter 6. See J. Buckler, Philip II and the Sacred War, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989; “Thebes, Delphoi, and the Outbreak of the Third Sacred War,” in P. Roesch and G. Argoud, edd., La Béotie antique, Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherché scientifique, 1985, pp. 237-246.

11. The text is clean and free from errors. The only infelicity is on page 142, where note 13 should read “Elean control of Olympia … ” rather than “Elean control of Delphi … “