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480 BC / Athens

Deconstructing the Oracle

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The Athenians had sent their envoys to Delphi to ask an oracle how they would fare against the Persians, and as soon as the customary rites were performed and they had entered the shrine and taken their seats, the priestess Aristonice uttered the following prophecy:

Why sit you, doomed ones? Fly to the
        world’s end, leaving
Home and the heights your city circles like
        a wheel.
The head shall not remain in its place, nor
        the body,
Nor the feet beneath, nor the hands, nor
        the parts between;
But all is ruined, for fire and the headlong
        god of war
Speeding in a Syrian chariot shall bring you
        low.
Many a tower shall he destroy, not yours
        alone,
And give pitiless fire many shrines of gods,
Which even now stand sweating, with fear
        quivering,
While over the rooftops black blood runs
        streaming
In prophecy of woe that needs must come.
        But rise,
Haste from the sanctuary and bow your
        hearts to grief.

The Athenian envoys heard these words with dismay; indeed, they were about to abandon themselves to despair at the dreadful fate which was prophesied, when Timon, the son of Androbulus and one of the most distinguished men in Delphi, suggested that they should take branches of olive in their hands and, in the guise of suppliants, approach the oracle a second time. The Athenians acted upon this suggestion. “Lord Apollo,” they said, “can you not, in consideration of these olive boughs which we have brought you, give us some better prophecy about our country? Otherwise we will never leave the holy place but stay here till we die.”

Thereupon the prophetess uttered a second prophecy, which ran as follows:

Not wholly can Pallas win the heart of
        Olympian Zeus,
Though she prays him with many prayers
        and all her subtlety;
Yet will I speak to you this other word, as
        firm as adamant:
Though all else shall be taken within the
        bound of Cecrops
And the fastness of the holy mountain of
        Cithaeron,
Yet Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene’s
        prayer
That the wooden wall only shall not fall, but
        help you and your children.
But await not the host of horse and foot
        coming from Asia,
Nor be still, but turn your back and
        withdraw from the foe.
Truly a day will come when you will meet
        him face to face.
Divine Salamis, you will bring death to
        women’s sons
When the corn is scattered, or the harvest
        gathered in.

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About the Author

Herodotus, from The Histories. Along with the two hundred triremes Themistocles had convinced Athens to build earlier, he was aided by around 150 more from various Greek city-states, most importantly Sparta. His interpretation of the oracle proved correct: the Battle of Salamis was decisive. The Greeks lost only about forty ships while they sank two hundred Persian vessels.

The day the world ends, no one will be there, just as no one was there when it began. This is a scandal. Such a scandal for the human race that it is indeed capable collectively, out of spite, of hastening the end of the world by all means just so it can enjoy the show.
Jean Baudrillard, 1987
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