BMCR 2017.01.46

Revisiting Delphi: Religion and Storytelling in Ancient Greece. Cambridge classical studies

, Revisiting Delphi: Religion and Storytelling in Ancient Greece. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xv, 215. ISBN 9781107151574. £64.99.


The Delphic Oracle is a constant presence in narratives of archaic and classical Greek history. Even in works that attempt to play down the role of the gods in influencing events, such as Thucydides’ History, Delphi is there in the background, not to be ignored. In this short book, Julia Kindt explores this narrative presence by focusing on stories in authors from Herodotus to Athenaeus. It is not a book about the Oracle itself, but about stories about the Oracle. It argues that these stories are themselves products of the ancient Greek mind, and therefore should be considered a part of Greek religious understanding, or ‘belief’. The book consists of five case studies, drawn from Herodotus, Euripides, Plato, Pausanias, and Athenaeus, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion, and then, as a sort of ‘bonus track’, an appendix on one of Plutarch’s Delphic dialogues.

The first chapter offers a brief overview of how earlier scholarship has approached Delphi, where the main focus has been on practical questions: how did the Oracle actually work? Which recorded responses can be considered reliable? In place of this concern with mechanism, it offers a new way forward, focusing on narratives about oracles as the objects of enquiry.

There follow three chapters on texts written in the late fifth and early fourth centuries. In the first of these, examining Herodotus Histories, the focus is particularly on the way in which oracular responses provide an authoritative voice commentating on events. A number of the oracle stories recorded in Herodotus come in speeches, such as those of Leotychides of Sparta (6.86) and Socles of Corinth (5.92), and Kindt suggests that these are representations of what Herodotus himself is doing—including Delphic responses in his narrative to give an extra dimension to his message.

In the following chapter, which explores Euripides’ Ion, set in Delphi, the emphasis is on the challenges in understanding the words of the gods. The play involves the characters having their expectations overturned, and Kindt points out that the experience of the audience is the same: events do not turn out as predicted at the start, and the plot is left with some elements not entirely satisfactorily resolved. Where things are sorted out, it is through human words and human wisdom.

Kindt then turns to Plato’s Apology. Here, Chaerophon’s visit to Delphi is seen to lie behind the argument of the speech. (It is not important for the argument whether the story about Chaerophon is true, or indeed whether Plato’s dialogue is close to what Socrates actually said in his defence). Socrates, who is facing charges of impiety, demonstrates in his defence that he has been following the god’s implied instructions (his personal ‘ daimonion ’ has Apollo’s approval), and is therefore more pious than his accusers. In the course of the speech he presents the jurors with the same question he has been trying to answer himself—what does the oracle mean, and what actions should follow from interpretation. Of course, Socrates is no more successful in persuading his audience than some of Herodotus’ speakers are, but this does not mean that his attempt is wrong.

The next two chapters deal with stories found in texts from the Roman imperial period, but telling stories about earlier times, both involving statues. Chapter five considers Pausanias’ narrative about the athlete Theagenes of Thasos (6.11.2-9). This story involves several statues, but most importantly one of Theagenes that is tried for homicide and exiled by being thrown into the sea. It is later miraculously recovered after Delphi tells the Thasians to restore their exiles. Here the statue, like all cult statues, shares the ambiguous nature of Delphic responses in narratives—is it a man-made object or is it itself divine?

The last case study takes a story found in Athenaeus (14.614a-b), drawn from Semus’ History of Delos in which Parmeniscus, who has lost the ability to laugh, consults Delphi and is told that the mother will restore it. In the end he is visiting Delos, and when he sees the cult statue of Leto there, bursts into laughter. Kindt uses this as a starting point for an exploration of the ‘religious gaze’, which she argues to be distinctive.

Some of the themes of these chapters are continued in the appendix, which analyses Plutarch’s essay, The E at Delphi. Here there is a discussion of the meaning of the letter E which was dedicated in front of the temple of Apollo. The E is word (equivalent to EI, ‘if’ or ‘you are’) and/or symbol (representing the number five). The fact that in the dialogue no agreement can be reached about its meaning is a further representation of the challenges of understanding divine communication.

In the conclusion Kindt explores the implications of her analysis. It is not enough to identify oracle stories as a particular form of narrative and then to try to get behind them to the ‘real events’; we have to treat the narratives as narratives. Their value is what they tell us about how the Greeks who told them articulated their understanding of divine communication with humans. These stories are themselves part of Greek religion, in that they contribute to debates about the nature of the gods and their relationship with humans. She makes a connection here to her previous book, Rethinking Greek Religion (Cambridge, 2014: BMCR 2014.09.47). There she argued that religion was not simply a way of making sense of the world, but was an element within the world. As part of Greek religion, oracles stories help shape the world when they are told.

This summary does not do full justice to the wealth of ideas in this book. These ideas are not necessarily neatly tied together, and there is no final resolution. As she does in her previous book, Kindt concludes at the end that ‘more research is … needed’ (168); and as there, she invites others to pick up the baton. This is an invitation that will probably not be taken up by those whose interest is in the practicalities of Greek ritual activity, or those who approach religion from a purely political or sociological perspective. But for the growing number of scholars working with the notion of ‘lived ancient religion’,1 it suggests work that can be usefully done.


1. See e.g. Rubina Raja, Jörg Rüpke (ed.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World (Blackwell, 2015: BMCR 2016.11.30).