Saturday, March 23, 2013

Croesus and the Oracles

Book one of Herodotus' history deals with the Persians.  My favorite bit has to do with king Croesus.  He meets Solon, a wandering Greek and asks him:
Athenian guest, much report of thee has come to us, both in regard to thy wisdom and thy wanderings, how that in thy search for wisdom thou has traversed many lands to see them; now therefore a desire has come upon me to ask thee whether thou hast seen any whom thou deemest to be of all men the most happy.
This was Croesus attempt to fish for a compliment.  The gods, of course, saw it as a big Smite Me sign on his back.  And smite him they did.  He launched an unwise war and was reduced to being a prisoner of the enemy.  At least he gets some wisdom out of the deal, as the opposing king Cyrus tells him:
For no one is so senseless as to choose of his own will war rather than peace, since in peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons.
I've thought about that statement quite a bit now that we're near the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war.

Over the past few months I've gotten a kick out of the appearances of the Oracle of Delphi (and others).  The oracles have been guest stars in just about everything we've read so far this year.  Our lead man, Croesus, decides to test the various oracles of the Mediterranean region.  He sends his men out, telling them to carefully count the days as they go.  Then, at the appointed time, they ask the Oracle what Croesus is doing right then.  These answers were written down and sent back to him, so he could judge the quality of the visions.  Only the Oracle at Delphi got it right.
So he sent many gifts to Delphi and and asked them if he should go to war against the Persians.  They told him that 'if he should march against the Persians he should destroy a great empire'.  Modern readers would understand the danger in the ambiguity of such phrasing but Croesus went right past it.  The mighty empire, was of course, his own. 
There was an oracle story that I'd never heard before, too.  In the wars, a man took refuge from the Persians in a town called Kyme.  The town people asked the Oracle if they should give him up or not and they said that they should.  One of the townspeople, a man named Aristodicos, disagreed and he went to the Oracle asked again.  They gave him the same answer so he decided to tear things up.  He destroyed the nests of the sparrows that were sacred to the Oracle.  The Oracle was aghast and asked why he would force away those, the Oracle would protect.
And Aristodicos, it is said, not being at all at a loss for words replied to this: "Lord, doest thou thus come to the assistance of they suppliants, and yet biddest the men of Kyme deliver up theirs?" and the god answered him again thus: "Yea, I bid you to do so, that ye may perish the more quickly for your impiety; so that ye may not at any future time come to the Oracle to ask about deliver up of the suppliants."
That's pretty cold blooded. 
I've tried to think of any modern equivalent to the Oracles and I can't really think of any.  My wife says that the internet now fills that niche but I'm not convinced. 

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