October 5, 2012
The Role of Oracles, and Dreams in Herodotus’ The History
Throughout Herodotus’ The History, Oracles, and dreams play an important role. While the gods have almost no presence throughout the book, the Oracles and/or dreams are linked to many of the major events.
We first encounter the Oracles in Book I, when Croesus asks the Oracles at Delphi if he should attack the Persians, the Oracle replies telling him (in a very ambiguous way) that if he fights, he will destroy a great empire (7.12). Unbeknownst to Croesus, the empire he will destroy will be his own. However, this answer from the Oracle is one of the things that convinces Croesus to attack Persia, in a manner jumpstarting the war. It could be that Croesus was always fated to destroy his empire, for the Pythia said, “Fate that is decreed, no one can escape, not even a god. Croesus has paid for the offense of his ancestor” (1.91). This was important to remember throughout the book. Whether Herodotus believed it or not, the Oracles and Magi believed that one could neither change nor escape fate.
In Book VII, the Oracles tell the Athenians that a wall of wood and Salamis will save Athens. When the Athenians first consulted the Pythia at Delphi, whose name was Aristonice, their demise was foretold. They asked for a different oracle. “My Lord,” they asked, “give us a better oracle about our fatherland; be moved to pity the suppliant boughs with which we come before you, or we will never go away from your shrine but remain right here till we die” (7.141). The priestess replied: No: Athena cannot appease great Zeus of Olympus
With many eloquent words and all her cunning counsel.
To you I declare again this word, and make it as iron:
All shall be taken by foemen, whatever within his border
Cecrops contains, and whatever the glades of sacred Cithaeron. Yet to Tritogeneia hall Zeus, loud-voiced, give a present,
A wall of wood, which alone shall abide unsacked by the foemen; Well shall it serve yourselves and your children in days that shall be. Do not abide the charge of horse and foot that come on you,
A mighty host from the landward side, but withdraw before it. Turn your back in retreat; on another day you shall face them. Salamis, isle divine, you shall slay many children of women, Either when seed is sown or again when the harvest is gathered. (Herodotus, 1.141)
The Athenians argued about what this meant, whether they will be victorious or defeated at Salamis. Themistocles concluded that, if the oracle referred to Salamis as “isle divine” that must mean that the Greeks would be victorious, because, he argued, it would have been referred to as “O Cruel Salamis” if all of its inhabitants were going to die. He then convinced the men to prepare for a sea battle. The ‘wall of wood’ would be their ships. The Athenians agreed with Themistocles, if, for no other reason, than his explanation sounded better than that offered by the oracle-interpreters. Hope, they saw, was better than despair.
In this instance, the Oracles do offer some idea of what will come, but the oracle-interpreters, whose purpose is to interpret, are essentially ignored. Themistocles heard what was said and picked out a phrase by which he explained the rest of the prophecy. The Athenians believed what they wanted to believe, which was that Salamis would be a Greek victory, and the ships made up the wall of wood to which the Oracle referred.
While the Athenians do not listen to what the oracle-interpreters had to say, they did take to heart what was told to them by the Oracle, and this led to many of the Greek peoples uniting—Argos sided with Persia; Gelon of Syracuse refused to help unless he could lead, thereby offending the Spartans; Corcyra assembled men and ships and went to the war, but sat on the sidelines watching; and Crete refused to join. The united Greece, led by Leonidas, decided to fight at Thermopylae, where Leonidas was killed....