The oracles, especially the ones of Delphi, were quite important in Ancient Greece, as consultation of the gods was one of the cornerstones of Greek religion. Regardless of what made the Pythia utter the oracle, no matter how ambiguous, there have been some accurate advice or “prophecies” that actually shaped life in Ancient Greece.
Ancient Greeks believed that communication with the gods would grant them divine wisdom, and oracles provided sacred advice on how to proceed with a problem or petition.
For such divine wisdom, Greeks were eager to offer precious gifts to the competent deity. Apollo was the god of prophecies, and the offerings were usually for him.
The Oracle at Delphi was the most famous in Ancient Greece. It was the place were ancient Greeks would receive divine advice rather than prophecies.
Usually, no major decisions were made, no ventures of any kind were undertaken, and no wars were declared if the interested parties had not consulted the oracle first.
In fact, there have been oracles that played an important role in the history of Ancient Greece.
Visitors would turn to the Pythia, the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi who served as its oracle. Pythia derives its name from either the Greek word “pynthanomai,” which means “to be informed,” or from “Python,” a mythical dragon or serpent of the area, slain by the Greek god Apollo.
Pythia was the conduit, transferring the words from god to mortal. Visitors would ask a specific question and the Pythia would answer, sometimes in the form of a riddle or line of verse. There have been many theories on what caused the Pythia to come to a state of ecstasy and deliver the oracle.
The most common is that the oracular powers appeared to be associated with vapors from the Kerna spring waters that flowed under the temple. It has often been suggested that these vapors may have been hallucinogenic gases.
Regardless of what made the Pythia utter the oracle, no matter how ambiguous, there have been some “prophecies” that actually shaped life in Ancient Greece.
Solon, the Athenian Lawmaker
Solon was a politician famous for establishing laws that promoted democracy in Ancient Athens. Around 594 BC, he visited Delphi to consult Pythia about the state of Athens.
The advice he received from the oracle caused him to return to Athens. With his new laws, he paved the way for democracy in Athens, altering the course of ancient Greece and, consequently, shaping the entire world.
“Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Athens,” he had been told. “Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city.”
At the time, the city was ruled by aristocratic tyrants. Solon did not want to become one of them. Hence, he created a constitution with the intention to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
He created a fair tax system, forgave the debts of the poor, introduced trial by jury, and required magistrates to swear a public oath upon entering office so as to always uphold justice.
If the magistrates broke their oath, they were required to dedicate a life-sized statue of solid gold at Delphi.
Lycurgus at Delphi
According to Herodotus, a famous lawmaker of the Archaic Period (800 BC – 480 BC) in Sparta visited the oracle at Delphi for consultation before he applied new laws to the city-state.
Once he appeared before Pythia, the oracle exclaimed:
You have come to my rich temple, Lycurgus,/ A man dear to Zeus and to all who have Olympian homes./ I am in doubt whether to pronounce you man or god,/ But I think rather you are a god, Lycurgus.
Lycurgus is said to have used this advice to make fundamental changes to Spartan society. He adapted all parts of social life from education to marriage in order to ensure a focus on creating a military state populated by fearless warriors.
Indeed, Sparta became a strong city-state with strict laws and great warriors, with King Leonidas being the most shining of examples.
The Oracle of Delphi Advices ancient Greeks on the Persian Wars
All oracular statements were ambiguous. Scholars believe this was because mortals could not fathom the complicated thinking of the gods. Some, though, were accurate as warnings.
In 480 BC, king Xerxes, son of Darius the Great, was determined to invade Greece and finish what his father had failed to achieve. His army was one of the largest ever and had the Athenians running to Delphi to hear what the oracle had to say.
The oracle spoken by Pythia was one of the most accurate:
“Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat. They shiver with dread. The black blood drips from the highest rooftops. They have seen the necessity of evil. Get out, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe.”
The oracle advised the Athenians to flee. The Spartans consulted the oracle of Delphi themselves as well. It did not differ from the one the Athenians received: “The strength of bulls or lions cannot stop the foe. No, he will not leave off, I say, until he tears the city or the king limb from limb.”
King Leonidas—the lion of the oracle—was killed in Thermopylae next to his brave three hundred men, torn limb from limb by the Persian arrows.
Yet, the Athenians received an oracle that contained a sliver of hope when they asked how the Persians might be defeated: “Far-seeing Zeus gives you…a wall of wood. Only this will stand intact and help you and your children.” The “wall of wood” in the oracle of Delphi was translated by Themistocles as the Athenian fleet.
The Athenians thus prepared their ships (made of wood at the time) and managed to defeat the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. This event marked the beginning of the Persian withdrawal from Greece and freedom for the Greeks.
The Croesus Oracle
Between 560 and 546, the ruler of Lydia, a Greek kingdom in today’s Turkey, was Croesus, a king with mythical wealth and the richest man that has ever been.
According to Herodotus, Croesus was an arrogant king and intended to invade Persia. He consulted the oracle of Delphi in relation to his ambitious plan.
However, before that, he conducted an oracle trial, consulting all of the famous oracles about what he was doing on a specific day. The Delphic oracle proclaimed:
“I know the number of the sand and the measure of the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless. The smell has come to my sense of a hard-shelled tortoise being cooked with a lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot: bronze is the cauldron underneath, and bronze is the lid.”
Delphi was correct and was declared the winner. Croesus then asked if he should make war on the Persians.
The prophecy that was given was very much to Croesus’ liking: “If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great empire.”
Croesus believed that his army could indeed destroy the powerful Persian Empire. He dedicated great amounts of silver and gold to the Apollo oracle. He therefore marched on with his army to “destroy the great empire.” The Persian army of Cyrus thrashed the Lydians, and Croesus was taken prisoner.
The oracle of Delphi was correct. An empire had been destroyed. Yet, it was not the one that Croesus believed it was, but the complete opposite.
Alexander the Great in Delphi
Early in his reign in 336 BC, Alexander the Great arrived to Delphi to consult the oracle about his planned expedition against the Persians. However, he arrived on an inauspicious day. It was a day when the oracle was forbidden from delivering a reply. Consequently, he was asked to return another time.
The young king was furious. Arrogant as he was, it is said that he went up to the Pythia herself and dragged her by the hair to the shrine. According to Plutarch, the priestess, as if overcome by his force and persistence, exclaimed: “You are invincible, my son!”
When Alexander heard this, he declared he did not want any other prophecy. After this, the king of Macedon began his campaign in Asia with great confidence in 334 BC.
Lysander of Sparta
Lysander was a military and political leader in Sparta. At the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, he destroyed the Athenian fleet, forcing Athens to capitulate and ending the Peloponnesian War. He went on to play an important role in Sparta’s dominance of Greece for the next decade, until his death at the Battle of Haliartus.
In 403 BC he was warned by the oracle of Delphi to beware:
“Also the dragon (serpent), earthborn, in craftiness coming behind thee”
In 395 BC, he was killed from behind by Neachorus, who had a serpent painted on his shield.
Oracle of Delphi about Socrates
When the Greek philosopher Socrates was told by one of his friends that the Oracle of Delphi had revealed to him that he was the wisest man in Athens, he tried to prove the Oracle wrong.
Socrates replied that either all were equally ignorant, or that he was wiser in that he alone was aware of his own ignorance (“I know that I know nothing”).
According to one version of the story, Socrates’ friend Chaerephon went before Pythia and asked, “Is there any man alive wiser than Socrates?” The response he received was simply, “None.” A different version is that Pythia replied: “Sophocles is wise, Euripides is wiser, but of all men Socrates is wisest”
Almost 2,500 years have passed, and Socrates is still regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time and the father of Western philosophy.