Voice of the Apollo: The influence of the Delphic oracle on culture and politics of Greece in the 6th to 4th centuries BCE

Delphic Oracle

Image credit: https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/maxims-from-the-delphic-oracle-ee2276e7a8db

by Niamh Corbett

The oracle at Delphi, defined as both the response given to a question and the person (priestess) who gives the response, was believed to be the vessel through which the god Apollo spoke. By acting as the voice of the Gods, the oracle had a profound influence on the culture and politics of Greece, particularly during the height of the oracle’s power between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. This period saw major developments in all areas of Greek life as well as an increase in conflict and major changes in political systems. These major upheavals and conflicts created uncertainty about the future and an increase in the ancient Greeks seeking advice and reassurance from the Gods, the highest authorities in ancient Greece. As such the oracles, who acted as intermediaries between the morals and the Gods, became increasingly important and influential during this period. 

The oracle at Delphi’s preeminence and influence can be partly attributed to her close association with Apollo, who was the god of prophecy and oracles; oracles from Delphi not only came directly from the Gods but from the God who specialised in prophecy. This influence can be seen in the openness of Delphi, which allowed for the oracle to become a Pan-Hellenic center and religious authority. The Delphic oracle could, and did, give divine approval to Greek colonialism and was a vital step in the process of spreading Greek culture and politics across the Mediterranean. The influence of the oracle, as the voice of the Gods, extended over the actions and decisions of political and military leaders and thereby influenced the politics and history of Greece. 

The temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the priestess, or Pythia, gave oracle responses from the god Apollo, was a Pan-Hellenic center of religious activity and impacted the formation of, according to the ancient writer and ‘father of history’ Herodotus’ definition, a Pan-Hellenic identity. Despite modern conceptions of a uniform ancient Greek culture, ancient Greece was divided up into over 1000 largely independent city states, or poleis, which were equally often united in numerous alliances/leagues or at war with each other. The ancient Greeks chiefly identified with their family and Polis, and then to the broader culture of ancient Greece. Importantly these poleis also had essential commonalities between them (which made them all ‘Greek’). They shared common Greek language, culture, customs, blood ties and religion. For Herodotus, religious institutions like the one in Delphi served as a place for Greeks to emphasize “the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common”, thereby preserving a common Greek identity. 

The success of Delphi as a Pan-Hellenic institution can be explained by its universal appeal and religious authority. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, an aetiological narrative that details the founding of the oracle and the temple, is devoid of specific references to particular poleis or individuals. According to legend, Apollo, when laying down his temple, emphasised that the oracle was meant for “humankind” and so signifies that the oracle was intended to be open to all from the founding of the temple. This shows that the oracle, while based at Delphi, was seen by the Greeks from its mythological origins to operate outside the traditional bounds of a particular poleis. 

The second reason for its success was its religious authority. According to the historian Michael Scott, the oracular institution acted as “a source of authority and tradition” in religious matters because it invoked the voice of Apollo. The Delphic oracle was often consulted on various religious matters, including questions regarding religious rites, practices and digressions. For example, around c. 550 BCE, as recorded by Herodotus, the Spartans “sent ambassadors to Delphi to ask which god they should propitiate to prevail against the Tegeans in war”. The fact that both individuals and groups from all over Greece consulted the oracle on religious matters implies that the Delphic oracle was considered a high authority on religion across Greece. This is logical as the Pythia was the voice of Apollo and so religious advice from the Pythia was religious advice from the Gods. Thus, the Delphic oracle acted as a Pan-Hellenic religious authority wherein all Greeks could get religious advice from the Gods. As a non-secular society, religion was a cornerstone of culture and so by acting as a religious authority the Pythia at Delphi extended a great influence over the cultural and social lives of the Greeks.

The Delphic oracle could give divine approval to actions and so was often consulted on the founding of colonies. Oracles, therefore, profoundly influenced the spread of Greeks and Greek culture across the Mediterranean by giving divine sanction to Greek expansionism. As the oracle response was “Apollo’s answer”, all approvals, disapprovals and advised actions are sanctioned by the Gods, legitimising the colonial process. The process of consulting the Delphic oracle, and obtaining divine approval, before founding a colony seemed to be a prerequisite for successful colonization, at least in Sparta. As Herodotus notes, when the Spartan Dorieus failed to ask the oracle where “ he should establish his settlement [in Libya], nor did anything else that was customary,”  the colony inevitably failed. 

As the voice of the Gods, the oracle at Delphi had a substantial amount of sway on the internal politics of Greek poleis. The Delphic oracle could approve certain leaders or suggest actions to clients that could influence the internal politics of independent poleis. According to Herodotus, “the gods’ will weighed with them more than the will of man”, meaning that the Delphic oracle’s suggestions and approval was more important than that of any human. It also suggests that the Pythia had the authority to convince clients to perform actions that they may not have done otherwise. As recorded by Herodotus this can be seen when, after being expelled from Athens by Pisistratus, the wealthy Alcmaeonid family “bribed the Pythian priestess to bid any Spartans who should come to inquire of her on private or public account to set Athens free [of the Pisistratid family]”. In 510 BCE after numerous suggestions by the oracle, Sparta drove the Pisistratids out of Athens and the Alcmaeonids were reinstated as the leading family within Athenian politics thus vastly changing the internal political landscape of Athens. This example shows both that the oracle at Delphi could be, as stated by historian Richard Stonemen,  “used for political purposes” and how the oracle could influence the actions of individuals and states, which then greatly impacted the politics and history of Greece. Additionally, the fact that the Alcmaeonids went to Delphi for help in this scenario is also telling as it implies that the Delphic oracle was known to be able to influence politics. The Alcmaeonids must have known, or thought, that the oracle could help them achieve their political desires (i.e. impact the politics of Athens) or they would not have approached or bribed Delphi in the first place. The oracle, therefore, can be seen to have had an enormous amount of influence on the internal politics of poleis that could, as with the Alcmaeonid and Pisistratid case, determine the leaders and political situation of a poleis.

The Delphic oracle famously had an influence over decisions to go to war and therefore on the political consequences of warfare. As the Pythia advised on military affairs, the oracle had direct influence on military decisions made by Greek leaders. The famous oracle response that Lydian King Croesus “would destroy a great empire” if he fought against Persia is an example of this. Croesus launched a campaign against Persia, incorrectly thinking that Persia was destined to be the great fallen empire, when it would be Lydia that would fall instead. Both Herodotus and modern scholars attribute Croesus’ failure to clarify, and subsequent misinterpretation of this oracle, as a factor that played a direct role in the downfall of Lydia. Without the (wrongly interpreted) oracle giving divine reassurance that Lydia would win the war, Croesus might not have gone to war with Persia. Simply, the oracle, as according to academic David Goldstien, “play[ed] a crucial role in his decision to attack Persia”. By misinterpreting the oracle, Croesus was reassured that his army would defeat Persia.  The oracle did not only influence the decision to go to war but the political landscape as well; Croesus launched a disastrous attack on Persia and a once independent state became a satrap (province) of the Persian empire. The Delphic oracle, by being the voice of the Gods whose advice therefore was worth more to the Greeks, gave advice that Greek leaders followed. These oracle responses gave divine reassurance (even in the circumstance of incorrect interpretation) that directly affected the decision making of leaders and military commanders. Basing military decisions off these oracles additionally meant that any outcomes of these decisions, such as the subjugation of Lydia, was a consequence of the oracle’s influence.

The oracle at Delphi had a profound influence over the Greeks and their actions throughout Greek history. By virtue of being the vessel for the voice of Apollo, the oracle was a method of receiving advice and approval from the Gods. The oracle’s openness to all meant that the oracle became a Pan-Hellenic authority and center for religion and thus aided in the formation of a Pan-Hellenic culture and identity. By being an essential step in colonialism and giving divine ‘green light’ to potential new colonies the oracle had a direct influence on the spread of Greeks and their culture around the Mediterranean. Additionally, as the Pythia gave advice to leaders, the oracle had a large sway over the actions of political leaders and military commanders which could, and did, change the internal political landscape of poleis as well as the wider ancient world. Therefore it can be said that the oracle at Delphi had a profound influence on both the lives of Greeks individually, through religion and by developing a Pan-Hellenic culture, and as a whole, through giving directions and advice to leaders and commanders whose actions and their consequences impacted the whole of the ancient Greek world. Thus the Delphic oracle sits, very rightly, in a prominent position within ancient Greek history.


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