The Oracles at Delphi no Longer Given in Verse
(De Pythiae Oracula)

By Plutarch


Plutarch’s essay on the changed custom at Delphi is quite as interesting for its digressions as for its treatment of the main topic. Portents, coincidences, history, a little philosophy, stories of persons like Croesus, Battus, Lysander, Rhodope, finally lead up to the statement that many oracles used to be delivered in prose, although still more in early times were delivered in verse; but the present age calls for simplicity and directness instead of the ancient obscurity and grandiloquence.

We possess a considerable body of Delphic oracles preserved in Greek literature, as, for example, the famous oracle of the “wooden wall” (Herodotus, vii. 141). Practically all of these are in hexameter verse. Many more records of oracles merely state that someone consulted the oracle and was told to perform a certain deed, or was told that something would or might happen, often with certain limitations. We have, therefore, no means of determining the truth of Plutarch’s statement, but there is little doubt that he is right. If we possessed his lost work, Χρησμῶν συναγωγή (no. 171 in Lamprias’s list), we should have more abundant data on which to base our decision.

The essay stands as no. 116 in Lamprias’s catalogue. It is found in only two mss. and in a few places the tradition leaves us in doubt, but, for the most part, the text is fairly clear.

The references to the topography and monuments of Delphi have become more intelligible since the site was excavated by the French. Pomtow, in the Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift, 1912, p. 1170, gives an account of the monuments visited by the company in this essay.

The essay often exhibits Plutarch at his best. Hartman thinks that Plutarch hoped that the work |257| would be read at Rome, and therefore inserted the encomium of Roman rule near the end.

The persons who take part in the dialogue are Basilocles and Philinus, who serve to introduce the later speakers; Diogenianus, Theon, Sarapion, Boethus, as well as Philinus himself and some professional guides.)

§1 Basilocles. You people have kept it up till well into the evening, Philinus, escorting the foreign visitor around among the statues and votive offerings. For my part, I had almost given up waiting for you.

Philinus. The fact is, Basilocles, that we went slowly, sowing words, and reaping them straightway with strife, like the men sprung from the Dragon’s teeth, words with meanings behind them of the contentious sort, which sprang up and flourished along our way.

Basilocles. Will it be necessary to call in someone else of those who were with you; or are you willing, as a favour, to relate in full what your conversation was and who took part in it?

Philinus. It looks, Basilocles, as if I shall have that to do. In fact, it would not be easy for you to find anyone of the others in the town, for I saw most of them once more on their way up to the Coryeian cave and Lycoreia 1 with the foreign visitor. |261|

Basilocles. Our visitor is certainly eager to see the sights, and an unusually eager listener.

Philinus. But even more is he a scholar and a student. However, it is not this that most deserves our admiration, but a winning gentleness, and his willingness to argue and to raise questions, which comes from his intelligence, and shows no dissatisfaction nor contrariety with the answers. So, after being with him but a short time, one would say, ‘O child of a goodly father!’ 2 You surely know Diogenianus, one of the best of men.

Basilocles. I never saw him myself, Philinus, but I have met many persons who expressed a strong approval of the man’s words and character, and who had other compliments of the same nature to say of the young man. But, my friend, what was the beginning and occasion of your conversation?

§2 Philinus. The guides were going through their prearranged programme, paying no heed to us who begged that they would cut short their harangues and their expounding of most of the inscriptions. The appearance and technique of the statues had only a moderate attraction for the foreign visitor, who, apparently, was a connoisseur in works of art. He did, however, admire the patina of the bronze, for it bore no resemblance to verdigris or rust, but the bronze was smooth and shining with a deep blue tinge, so that it gave an added touch to the sea-captains 3 (for he had begun his sight-seeing with them), as they stood there with the true complexion of the sea and its deepest depths. |263|

‘Was there, then,’ said he, ‘some process of alloying and treating used by the artizans of early times for bronze, something like what is called the tempering of swords, on the disappearance of which bronze came to have a respite from employment in war? As a matter of fact,’ he continued, ‘it was not by art, as they say, but by accident that the Corinthian bronze 4 acquired its beauty of colour; a fire consumed a house containing some gold and silver and a great store of copper, and when these were melted and fused together, the great mass of copper furnished a name because of its preponderance.’

Theon, taking up the conversation, said, ‘We have heard another more artful account, how a worker in bronze at Corinth, when he had come upon a hoard containing much gold, fearing detection, broke it off a little at a time and stealthily mixed it with his bronze, which thus acquired a wondrous composition. He sold it for a goodly price since it was very highly esteemed for its colour and beauty. However, both this story and that are fiction, but there was apparently some process of combination and preparation; for even now they alloy gold with silver 5 and produce a peculiar and extraordinary, and, to my eyes, a sickly paleness and an unlovely perversion.’

§3 ‘What do you think, then,’ said Diogenianus, ‘has been the cause of the colour of the bronze here?’

Theon replied, ‘When of the primal and simplest |265| elements in Nature, as they are called and actually are — fire, earth, air, and water — there is none other that comes near to the bronze or is in contact with it, save only air, it is clear that the bronze is affected by this, and that because of this it has acquired whatever distinctive quality it has, since the air is always about it and environs it closely. 6 Of a truth

All this I knew before Theognis' day, 7

as the comic poet has it. But is it your desire to learn what property the air possesses and what power it exerts in its constant contact, so that it has imparted a colouring to the bronze?’

As Diogenianus assented, Theon said, ‘And so also is it my desire, my young friend; let us, therefore, investigate together, and before anything else, if you will, the reason why olive-oil most of all the liquids covers bronze with rust. For, obviously, the oil of itself does not deposit the rust, since it is pure and stainless when applied.’

‘Certainly not,’ said the young man. ‘My own opinion is that there must be something else that causes this, for the oil is thin, pure, and transparent, and the rust, when it encounters this, is most visible, but in the other liquids it becomes invisible.’

‘Well done, my young friend,’ said Theon, ‘and excellently said. But consider, if you will, the reason given by Aristotle.’ 8

‘Very well,’ said he, ‘I will.’ |267|

‘Now Aristotle says that when the rust absorbs any of the other liquids, it is imperceptibly disunited and dispersed, since these are unevenly and thinly constituted; but by the density of the oil it is prevented from escaping and remains permanently as it is collected. If, then, we are able of ourselves to invent some such hypothesis, we shall not be altogether at a loss for some magic spell and some words of comfort to apply to this puzzling question.’

§4 Since, therefore, we urged him on and gave him his opportunity, Theon said that the air in Delphi is dense and compact, possessing a certain vigour because of the repulsion and resistance that it encounters from the lofty hills; and it is also tenuous and keen, as the facts about the digestion of food bear witness. So the air, by reason of its tenuity, works its way into the bronze and cuts it, disengaging from it a great quantity of rust like dust, but this it retains and holds fast, inasmuch as its density does not allow a passage for this. The rust gathers and, because of its great abundance, it effloresces and acquires a brilliance and lustre on its surface.

When we had accepted this explanation, the foreign visitor said that the one hypothesis alone was sufficient for the argument. ‘The tenuity,’ said he, ‘will seem to be in contravention to the reputed density of the air, but there is no need to bring it in. As a matter of fact the bronze of itself, as it grows old, exudes and releases the rust which the density of the air confines and solidifies and thus makes it visible because of its great abundance.’

Theon, taking this up, said, ‘My friend, what is there to prevent the same thing from being both |269| tenuous and dense, like the silken and linen varieties of cloth, touching which Homer 9 has said Streams of the liquid oil flow off from the close-woven linen, showing the exactitude and fineness of the weaving by the statement that the oil does not remain on the cloth, but runs off over the surface, since the fineness and closeness of the texture does not let it through? In fact the tenuity of the air can be brought forward, not only as an argument regarding the disengaging of the rust, but, very likely, it also makes the colour itself more agreeable and brilliant by blending light and lustre with the blue.’

§5 Following this a silence ensued, and again the guides began to deliver their harangues. A certain oracle in verse was recited (I think it concerned the kingdom of Aegon the Argive, 10 whereupon Diogenianus said that he had often wondered at the barrenness and cheapness of the hexameter lines in which the oracles are pronounced. ‘Yet the god is Leader of the Muses, and it is right and fair that he should take no less interest in what is called elegance of diction than in the sweetness of sound that is concerned with tunes and songs, and that his utterances should surpass Hesiod and Homer in the excellence of their versification. Yet we observe that most of the oracles are full of metrical and verbal errors and barren diction.’

Sarapion, the poet who was present from Athens, said, ‘Then do we believe these verses to be the |271| god’s, and yet dare to say that in beauty they fall short of the verses of Homer and Hesiod? Shall we not treat them as if they were the best and fairest of poetic compositions, and correct our own judgement, prepossessed as it is as the result of unfortunate habituation?’

At this point Boëthus 11 the mathematician entered into the conversation. (You know that the man is already changing his allegiance in the direction of Epicureanism.) Said he, ‘Do you happen to have heard the story of Pauson the painter?’ 12

‘No,’ said Sarapion, ‘I have not.’

‘Well, it is really worth hearing. It seems that he had received a commission to paint a horse rolling, and painted it galloping. His patron was indignant, whereupon Pauson laughed and turned the canvas upside down, and, when the lower part became the upper, the horse now appeared to be not galloping, but rolling. Bion says that this happens to some arguments when they are inverted. So some people will say of the oracles also, not that they are excellently made because they are the god’s, but that they are not the god’s because they are poorly made! The first of these is in the realm of the unknown; but that the verses conveying the oracles are carelessly wrought is, of course, perfectly clear to you, my dear Sarapion, for you are competent to judge. You write poems in a philosophic and restrained style, but in force and grace and diction they bear more resemblance to the poems of Homer and |273| Hesiod than to the verses put forth by the prophetic priestess.’

§6 ‘The fact is, Boëthus,’ said Sarapion, ‘that we are ailing both in ears and eyes, accustomed as we are, through luxury and soft living, to believe and to declare that the pleasanter things are fair and lovely. Before long we shall be finding fault with the prophetic priestess because she does not speak in purer tones than Glaucê, 13 who sings to the lyre, and because she is not perfumed and clad in purple when she goes down into the inner shrine, and does not burn upon the altar cassia or ladanum or frankincense, but only laurel and barley meal. Do you not see,’ he continued, ‘what grace the songs of Sappho have, charming and bewitching all who listen to them? But the Sibyl ‘with frenzied lips,’ as Heracleitus 14 has it, ‘uttering words mirthless, unembellislied, unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice through the god.’ And Pindar 15 says that ‘Cadmus heard the god revealing music true,’ not sweet nor voluptuous nor with suddenly changing melody. For the emotionless and pure does not welcome Pleasure, but she, as well as Mischief, 16 was thrown down here, and the greater part of the evil in her has, apparently, gathered together to flood the ears of men.’ 17

§7 When Sarapion had said this, Theon smiled and |275| said, ‘Sarapion has yielded as usual to his propensity by taking advantage of the incidental mention of Mischief and Pleasure. But as for us, Boëthus, even if these verses be inferior to Homer’s, let us not believe that the god has composed them, but that he supplies the origin of the incitement, and then the prophetic priestesses are moved each in accordance with her natural faculties. Certainly, if it were necessary to write the oracles, instead of delivering them orally, I do not think that we should believe the handwriting to be the god’s, and find fault with it because in beauty it fell short of that of the royal scribes. As a matter of fact, the voice is not that of a god, 18 nor the utterance of it, nor the diction, nor the metre, but all these are the woman’s; he puts into her mind only the visions, and creates a light in her soul in regard to the future; for inspiration is precisely this. And, speaking in general, it is impossible to escape you who speak for Epicurus 19 (in fact you yourself, Boëthus, are obviously being borne in that direction); but you charge the prophetic priestesses of old with using bad verse, and those of the present day with delivering their oracles in prose and using commonplace words, so that they may not be liable to render an account to you for their wrong use of a short syllable at the beginning, middle, or end of their lines!’ 20

‘In Heaven’s name,’ said Diogenianus, ‘do not jest, but solve for us this problem, which is of universal interest. For there is not one of us that does not seek |277| to learn the cause and reason why the oracle has ceased to employ verse and metre.’

Whereupon Theon, interrupting, said, ‘But just now, my young friend, we seem rather rudely to be taking away from the guides their proper business. Permit, therefore, their services to be rendered first, and after that you shall, at your leisure, raise questions about any matters you wish.’

§8 By this time we had proceeded until we were opposite the statue of Hiero the despot. The foreign visitor, by reason of his genial nature, made himself listen to the various tales, although he knew them all perfectly well; but when he was told that a bronze pillar of Hiero’s standing above had fallen of itself during that day on which it happened that Hiero was coming to his end at Syracuse, he expressed his astonishment. Whereupon I proceeded to recall to his mind other events of a like nature, such, for example, as the experience of Hiero 21 the Spartan, how before his death, which came to him at Leuctra, the eyes fell out of his statue, and the stars disappeared which Lysander had dedicated from the naval battle at Aegospotami; and the stone statue of Lysander 22 himself put forth a growth of wild shrubs and grass in such abundance as to cover up the face; and at the time of the Athenian misfortunes in Sicily, the golden dates were dropping from the palm-tree and ravens were pecking off the edge of the shield of Pallas Athena;23 and the crown |279| of the Cnidians which Philomela, despot of the Phocians, had presented to the dancing-girl, 24 Pharsalia caused her death, after she had emigrated from Greece to Italy and was disporting herself in the vicinity of the temple of Apollo at Metapontum; for the young men made a rush for the crown, and as they struggled with one another for the gold, they tore the girl to pieces.

Aristotle 25 used to say that Homer is the only poet who wrote words possessing movement because of their vigour; but I should say that among votive offerings also, those dedicated here have movement and significance in sympathy with the god’s foreknowledge, and no part of them is void or insensible, but all are filled with the divine spirit.

‘Yes indeed,’ said Boethus. ‘It is not enough to incarnate the god once every month in a mortal body, but we are bent upon incorporating him into every bit of stone and bronze, as if we did not have in Chance or Accident an agent responsible for such coincidences.’

‘Then,’ said I, ‘does it seem to you that chance and accident have ordered every single one of such occurrences; and is it credible that the atoms slipped out of place and were separated one from another and inclined towards one side neither before nor afterwards, but at precisely the time when each of the dedicators was destined to fare either worse or better? And now Epicurus 26 comes to your aid, apparently, with what he said or wrote three hundred years ago; but it does not seem to you that the god, unless he should transport himself and incorporate |281| himself into everything and be merged with everything, could initiate movement or cause anything to happen to any existent object!’

§9 Such was my answer to Boëthus, and in similar vein mention was made of the oracles of the Sibyl. For when we halted as we reached a point opposite the rock which lies over against the council-chamber, upon which it is said that the first Sibyl 27 sat after her arrival from Helicon where she had been reared by the Muses (though others say that she came from the Malians and was the daughter of Lamia whose father was Poseidon), Sarapion recalled the verses in which she sang of herself: that even after death she shall not cease from prophesying, but that she shall go round and round in the moon, 28 becoming what is called the face that appears in the moon; while her spirit, mingled with the air, shall be for ever borne onward in voices of presage and portent; and since from her body, transformed within the earth, grass and herbage shall spring, on this shall pasture the creatures reared for the holy sacrifice, and they shall acquire all manner of colours and forms and qualities upon their inward parts, from which shall come for men prognostications of the future.

Boëthus even more plainly showed his derision.

The foreign visitor remarked that even if these matters appear to be fables, yet the prophecies have witnesses to testify for them in the numerous desolations and migrations of Grecian cities, the numerous descents of barbarian hordes, and the overthrow of empires. ‘And these recent and unusual occurrences |283| near Cumae and Dicaearcheia, 29 were they not recited long ago in the songs of the Sibyl? and has not Time, as if in her debt, duly discharged the obligation in the bursting forth of fires from the mountain, boiling seas, blazing rocks tossed aloft by the wind, and the destruction of such great and noble cities that those who came there by daylight felt ignorance and uncertainty as to where these had been situated, since the land was in such confusion? Such things, if they have come to pass, it is hard to believe, to say nothing of foretelling them, without divine inspiration.’

§10 Thereupon Boëthus said, “My good sir, what kind of an occurrence can there be that is not a debt owed by Time to Nature? What is there strange and unexpected round about land or sea or cities or men which one might foretell and not find it come to pass? Yet this is not precisely foretelling, but telling; or rather it is a throwing and scattering of words without foundation into the infinite; and oftentimes Chance encounters them in their wanderings and accidentally falls into accord with them. As a matter of fact, the coming to pass of something that has been told is a different matter, I think, from the telling of something that will come to pass. For the pronouncement, telling of things non-existent, contains error in itself, and it is not equitable for it to await the confirmation that comes through accidental circumstances; nor can it use as a true proof of having foretold with knowledge the fact that the thing came about after the telling thereof, since Infinity brings all things to pass. Much more - is it true that the ‘good |285| guesser,’ whom the proverb has proclaimed ‘the best prophet,’ 30 is like unto a man who searches the ground over, and tries to track the future by means of reasonable probabilities.

‘These prophets of the type of the Sibyl and Bacis toss forth and scatter into the gulf of time, as into the ocean depths with no chart to guide them, words and phrases at haphazard, which deal with events and occurrences of all sorts; and although some come to pass for them as the result of chance, what is said at the present time is equally a lie, even if later it becomes true in the event that such a thing does happen.’

§11 When Boëthus had expounded these views, Sarapion said, ‘That is setting a fair valuation on things which are predicated, as Boëthus affirms, so indefinitely and groundlessly. Granted that victory was foretold for a general: he is victorious; or the destruction of a city: it is now overthrown. But where there is stated not only what shall come to pass, but also how and when and after what and attended by what, that is not a guess about what may perhaps come to pass, but a prognostication of things that shall surely be. These, for example, are the lines referring to the lameness of Agesilaüs: 31

Sparta, take thought as thou must, although thou art haughty and boastful,
Lest from thee, who art sturdy of foot, shall spring a lame kingship,
Since for a long time to come shall troubles unlocked for engage thee.
Likewise the onrushing billow of war, bringing death to thy people.

|287| And then again these lines about the island which the sea cast up in front of Thera and Therasia, 32 and also about the war of Philip and the Romans;

But when the offspring of Trojans shall come to be in ascendant
Over Phoenicians in conflict, events shall be then beyond credence;
Ocean shall blaze with an infinite fire, and with rattling of thunder
Scorching blasts through the turbulent waters shall upward be driven;
With them a rock, and the rock shall remain firm fixed in the ocean,
Making an island by mortals unnamed; and men who are weaker
Shall by the might of their arms be able to vanquish the stronger.

The fact is that these events, all occurring within a short space of time — the Romans' prevailing over the Carthaginians by overcoming Hannibal in war, Philip’s coming into conflict with the Aetolians and being overpowered by the Romans in battle, and finally an island’s rising out of the deep accompanied by much fire and boiling surge — no one could say that they all met together at the same time and coincided by chance in an accidental way; no, their order makes manifest their prognostication, and so also does the foretelling to the Romans, some five hundred years beforehand, of the time when they should be at war with all the nations of the world at once: this was their war with their slaves, who had rebelled. In all this, then, there is nothing unindicated or blind which is helplessly seeking to meet chance in infinity; 33 and reason gives many other trustworthy assurances regarding experience, and indicates the road along which |289| a destined event travels. For I do not think that anybody will say that by chance it coincides in time with those things with which it was foretold that it should be attended. If that were so, what is to hinder someone else from declaring that Epicurus did not write his Leading Principles 34 for us, Boëthus, but that, by chance and accidentally, the letters fell in with one another as they now stand, and the book was completed?’

§12 During this conversation we were moving forward. While we were looking at the bronze palm-tree in the treasure-house of the Corinthians, the only one of their votive offerings that is still left, the frogs 35 and water-snakes, wrought in metal about its base, caused much wonder to Diogenianus, and naturally to ourselves as well. For the palm does not, like many other trees, grow in marshes, or love water; nor do frogs bear any relation to the people of Corinth so as to be a symbol or emblem of their city, even as, you know, the people of Selinus are said to have dedicated a golden celery plant, 36 and the people of Tenedos the axe, derived from the crabs which are found on the island in the neighbourhood of Asterium, as the place is called. For these, apparently, are the only crabs that have the figure of an axe on the shell. Yet, in fact, we believe that to the god himself ravens and swans and wolves and hawks, or anything else rather than these creatures, are pleasing.

Sarapion remarked that the artisan had represented allegorically the nurture and birth and exhalation of the sun from moisture, whether he had read what Homer 37 says, |291| ‘Swiftly away moved the Sun, forsaking the beautiful waters,’ or whether he had observed that the Egyptians, to show the beginning of sunrise, paint a very young baby sitting on a lotus flower. 38 I laughed and said, ‘Where now, my good friend? Are you again slyly thrusting in your Stoicism here and unostentatiously slipping into the discussion their ‘kindlings’ and ‘exhalations,’ 39 not indeed bringing down the moon and the sun, as the Thessalian women do, 40 but assuming that they spring up here from earth and water and derive their origin from here? For Plato 41 called man also ‘a celestial plant,’ as though he were held upright from his head above as from a root. But you Stoics ridicule Empedocles 42

for his assertion that the sun, created by the reflection of celestial light, about the earth,

Back to the heavens again sends his beams with countenance fearless.

And you yourselves declare the sun to be an earth-born creature or a water-plant, assigning him to the kingdom of the frogs or water-snakes. But let us refer all this to the heroics of the Stoic school, and let us make a cursory examination of the cursory work of the artisans. In many instances they indeed show elegance and refinement, but they have not in all eases avoided frigidity and over-elaboration. Just as the man who constructed the cock upon the hand |293| of Apollo’s statue showed by suggestion the early morning and the hour of approaching sunrise, so here, one might aver, has been produced in the frogs a token of springtime when the sun begins to dominate the atmosphere and to break up the winter; that is, if, as you say, we must think of Apollo and the Sun, not as two gods, but as one.’

‘Really,’ said Sarapion, ‘do you not think so, and do you imagine that the sun is different from Apollo?’ 43

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘as different as the moon from the sun; but the moon does not often conceal the sun, nor conceal it from the eyes of all, 44 but the sun has caused all to be quite ignorant of Apollo by diverting the faculty of thought through the faculty of perception from what is to what appears to be.’

§13 Following this, Sarapion asked the guides why it is that they call the treasure-house, not the house of Cypselus the donor, but the house of the Corinthians. When they were silent, as I think, for lack of any reason to give, I laughed and said, ‘What knowledge or memory do we imagine these men have still remaining, when they are utterly dumbfounded by your high-flown talk? As a matter of fact, we heard them say earlier that when the despotism was overthrown, the Corinthians wished to inscribe both the golden statue at Olympia and the treasure-house here with the name of their city, and the people of Delphi accordingly granted this as being a fair request, and gave their consent; but the Eleans refused out of ill-will, and the Corinthians voted that the Eleans should not be allowed to take part in the Isthmian Games. Consequently, from that time on |295| there has been no competition from Elis at these games. The slaying of the Molionidae by Heracles near Cleonae 45 is not, as some think, a cause contributing in any way to the exclusion of the Eleans. On the contrary, it would have been appropriate for them to exclude the Corinthians, if they had taken offence against them for this reason.’ That was all I said.

§14 When we had passed the house of the Acanthians and Brasidas, the guide pointed out to us the site where iron spits of Rhodopis the courtesan were once placed, 46 at which Diogenianus indignantly said, ‘So, then, it was the province of the same State to provide Rhodopis with a place where she might bring and deposit the tithes of her earnings, and also to put to death Aesop, 47 her fellow-slave.’

‘Why,’ said Sarapion, ‘are you indignant over this, my good sir? Look up there and behold among the generals and kings Mnesaretê wrought in gold, who, as Crates said, stands as a trophy to the licentiousness of the Greeks.’ 48

The young man accordingly looked at it and remarked, ‘Then it was about Phrynê that this statement was made by Crates?’

‘Yes,’ said Sarapion, ‘she was called Mnesaretê, but she got the nickname of Phrynê 49 because of her sallow complexion. In many instances, apparently, nicknames cause the real names to be obscured. For example, Polyxena, the mother of Alexander, they say was later called Myrtalê and Olympias and Stratonicê. |297| Eumetis of Rhodes most people call, even to this day, Cleobulina 50 from her father; and Herophilê of Erythrae, who had the gift of prophecy, they addressed as Sibyl. You will hear the grammarians assert that Leda was named Mnesinoë and Orestes Achaeus. … But how,’ said he, with a look at Theon, ‘do you think to demolish this charge of guilt against Phrynê?’

§15 Theon, with a quiet smile, said, ‘In such a way as to lodge complaint against you as well for bringing up the most trifling of the peccadilloes of the Greeks. For just as Socrates, while being entertained at Gallias’s house, shows hostility toward perfume only, 51 but looks on with tolerance at children’s dancing, and at tumbling, 52 kissing, 53 and buffoons;54 so you also seem to me, in a similar way, to be excluding from this shrine a poor weak woman who put the beauty of her person to a base use, but when you see the god completely surrounded by choice offerings and tithes from murders, wars, and plunderings, and his temple crowded with spoils and booty from the Greeks, you show no indignation, nor do you feel any pity for the Greeks when upon the beautiful votive offerings you read the most disgraceful inscriptions: ‘Brasidas and the Acanthians from the Athenians,’ and ‘The Athenians from the Corinthians,’ and ‘The Phocians from the Thessalians,’ and ‘The Orneatans from the Sicyonians,’ and ‘The Amphictyons from the Phocians.’ But Praxiteles, apparently, was the only one that caused annoyance to Crates by gaining for his beloved the privilege of a dedication here, whereas Crates ought to have commended |299| him because beside these golden kings he placed a golden courtesan, thus rebuking wealth for possessing nothing to be admired or revered. For it would be well for kings and rulers to dedicate votive offerings to commemorate justice, self-control, and magnanimity, not golden and luxurious affluence, which is shared also by men who have led the most disgraceful lives.’

§16 ‘There is one thing that you omit to mention,’ said one of the guides, ‘that Croesus had a golden statue made of the woman who baked his bread, and dedicated it here.’

‘Yes,’ said Theon, ‘only he did it not in mockery of the holy shrine, but because he found an honourable and righteous cause for so doing. 55 For it is said that Alyattes, the father of Croesus, married a second wife, and was rearing a second group of children. So the woman, in a plot against Croesus, gave poison to the baker and bade her knead it into the bread and serve it to Croesus. But the baker secretly told Croesus and served the bread to the stepmother’s children; in return for this action Croesus, when he became king, as it were in the sight of the god as a witness, requited the favour done by the woman and also conferred a benefit upon the god. Wherefore,’ he continued, “it is right and proper, if there is any similar votive offering from States, to honour and respect it, as, for example, that of the Opuntians. For, when the despots of the Phocians melted up many of the votive offerings made of gold or silver, 56 and minted coins and put them into circulation among the |301| various States, the Opuntians, collecting what money they could find, sent back here a water-jar for the god, and consecrated it to him. For my part, I commend also the inhabitants of Myrina and of Apollonia for sending to this place fruits of the harvest fashioned of gold; and still more the inhabitants of Eretria and Magnesia who presented the god with the first-fruits of their people, in the belief that he is the giver of crops, the god of their fathers, the author of their being, and the friend of man. And I blame the Megarians because they are almost the only people who erected here a statue of the god with spear in hand to commemorate the battle in which they defeated and drove out the Athenians, who were in possession of their city in the period following the Persian Wars. Later, however, they dedicated to the god a golden plectrum, 57 calling attention, apparently, to Scythinus, 58 who says regarding the lyre,

Which the son of Zeus,
Fair Apollo, who embraces origin and end in one,
Sets in tune, and for his plectrum has the bright rays of the sun.”

§17 As Sarapion was beginning to say something about these matters, the foreign visitor said, ‘It is very pleasant to listen to such conversation as this, but I am constrained to claim the fulfillment of your first promise regarding the cause which has made the prophetic priestess cease to give her oracles in epic verse or in other metres. So, if it be agreeable, let us postpone to another time what remains of our sightseeing, and sit down here and hear about it. For it is the recital of this fact which above all else |303| militates against confidence in the oracle, since people assume one of two things: either that the prophetic priestess does not come near to the region in which is the godhead, or else that the spirit has been completely quenched and her powers have forsaken her.’

Accordingly we went round and seated ourselves upon the southern steps of the temple, looking towards the shrine of Earth and the stream of water, with the result that Boethus immediately remarked that the place itself proffered assistance to the visitor in the solution of the question. ‘For,’ said he, ‘there used to be a shrine of the Muses near the place where the water of the stream wells up; wherefore they used to use this water for libations and lustrations, as Simonides 59 says:

Where from depths below, for pure lustration
Is drawn the fair-haired Muses’ fount of holy water.

And in another passage 59 {sic} says:

he addresses Clio in a somewhat affected way as the

Holy guardian of lustration,

and goes on to say that

She, invoked in many a prayer,
In robes unwrought with gold,
For those that came to draw
Raised from the ambrosial grot
The fragrant beauteous water.

|305| Eudoxus, therefore, was wrong in believing those who declared that this is called the water of the Styx. But they established the cult of the Muses as associates and guardians of the prophetic art in this very place beside the stream and the shrine of Earth, to whom it is said that the oracle used to belong because of the responses being given in poetic and musical measures. And some assert that it was here that the heroic verse was heard for the first time:

Birds, contribute your feathers, and bees, bring wax as your portion.

Later Earth became inferior to the god and lost her august position.’


‘That, Boëthus,’ said Sarapion, ‘is more reasonable and harmonious. For we must not show hostility towards the god, nor do away with his providence and divine powers together with his prophetic gifts; but we must seek for explanations of such matters as seem to stand in the way, and not relinquish the reverent faith of our fathers.’

‘What you say, my esteemed Sarapion,’ said I, “is quite right. We have not been surrendering hope for philosophy either, as if it had been completely done away with and destroyed, just because formerly the philosophers used to publish their doctrines and discourses in the form of poems, as Orpheus, Hesiod, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Empedocles, and Thales. Later they ceased to do this, and now all have ceased using metrical form, all except you. At your hands the poetic art returns to philosophy from its banishment, and sounds a clear and noble challenge to the young.

‘Nor did Aristarchus, Timocharis, Aristyllus, and Hipparchus, and their followers make astronomy less |307| notable by writing in prose, although in earlier days Eudoxus, Hesiod, and Thales wrote in verse, if indeed Thales, in all truth, composed the Astronomy which is attributed to him. Pindar also confesses that he is puzzled by the neglect of a mode of music and is astonished that … 60 The fact is that there is nothing dreadful nor abnormal in seeking the causes of such changes; but to do away with these arts and faculties themselves because something about them has been disturbed or changed is not right.’

§19 Theon, taking up the subject, said, “But these matters have actually undergone great changes and innovations, whereas you know that many of the oracles here have been given out in prose, and those that concerned no unimportant matters. For, as Thucydides 61 has recorded, when the Spartans consulted the god about their war against the Athenians, his answer was a promise of victory and power and that he himself would come to their aid, bidden or unbidden; and in another oracle that if they would not allow Pleistoanax to return from exile, they should plough with a silver ploughshare. 62

“When the Athenians sought advice about their campaign in Sicily, he directed them to get the priestess of Athena at Erythrae; the name which the woman bore was ‘Quiet.’ 63 |309|

“When Deinomenes of Sicily asked advice about his sons, the answer was that all three should rule as despots; and when Deinomenes rejoined, ‘To their sorrow, then, O Lord Apollo,’ the god said that he granted this also to Deinomenes, and added it to the response. You all know, of course, that Gelo, while he was despot, suffered from dropsy; and likewise Hiero from gall-stones; and the third, Thrasybulus, became involved in seditions and wars, and it was no long time before he was dethroned.

“Then there was Procles, the despot of Epidaurus, who did away with many men in a cruel and lawless manner, and finally put to death Timarchus, who had come to him from Athens with money, after receiving him and entertaining him with much show of hospitality. The body he thrust into a basket and sank in the sea. All this he accomplished through Cleander of Aegina, and nobody else knew anything about it. But later, when his affairs were in sad confusion, he sent here his brother Cleotimus to ask advice in secret concerning his flight and withdrawal to another country. The god therefore made answer that he granted Procles flight and withdrawal to the place in which he had bidden his friend from Aegina deposit the basket, or where the stag sheds his horns. The despot at once understood that the god ordered him to sink himself in the sea or to bury himself in the earth (for stags, whenever their horns fall off, bury them out of sight underground 64); but he waited for a short time, and then, when the state of his aflairs became altogether desperate, he had to leave the country. And the friends of Timarchus seized him, slew him, and cast forth his dead body into the sea. |311|

“Most important of all is the fact that the decrees through which Lycurgus gave form and order to the Spartan constitution were given to him in prose.

“Now Herodotus and Philochorus and Ister, men who were most assiduous in collecting prophecies in verse, have quoted countless oracles not in verse; but Theopompus, who has given more diligent study to the oracle than any one man, has strongly rebuked those who do not believe that in his time the prophetic priestess used verse in her oracular responses. Afterwards, wishing to prove this, he has found to support his contention an altogether meagre number of such oracles, indicating that the others were given out in prose even as early as that time.

§20 “Some of the oracles even today come out in metre, one of which an affair has made famous. There is in Phocis a shrine of Heracles the Womanhater, and it is the custom that the man who is appointed to the priesthood shall have no association with a woman within the year. For this reason they usually appoint as priests rather old men. By exception, only a few years ago, a young man, not at all bad, but ambitious, who was in love with a girl, gained the office. At first he was able to control himself, and succeeded in keeping out of her way; but when she suddenly came in upon him as he was resting after drinking and dancing, he did the forbidden thing. Frightened and perturbed in consequence, he resorted at once to the oracle and asked the god about his sin, whether there were any way to obtain forgiveness or to expiate it; and he received this response:

All things that must be doth the god condone.

|313|“However, even if anybody were to grant that no word of prophecy is uttered in our time without being in verse, such a person would be in much more perplexity regarding the oracles of ancient times which gave their responses at one time in verse and at another time without versification. However, neither of these, my young friend, goes counter to reason if only we hold correct and uncontaminated opinions about the god, and do not believe that it was he himself who used to compose the verses in earlier times, while now he suggests the oracles 65 to the prophetic priestess as if he were prompting an actor in a play to speak his words.

§21 “However, it is worth our while to discuss these matters at greater length and to learn about them at another time; but for the present let us recall to our minds what we have learned in brief: that the body makes use of many instruments 66 and that the soul makes use of this very body and its members; moreover, the soul is created to be the instrument of God, and the virtue of an instrument is to conform as exactly as possible to the purpose of the agent that employs it by using all the powers which Nature has bestowed upon it, and to produce, presented in itself, the purpose of the very design; but to present this, not in the form in which it was existent in its creator, uncontaminated, unaffected, and faultless, but combined with much that is alien to this. For pure design cannot be seen by us, and when it is made manifest in another guise and through another medium, it becomes contaminated with the nature of this medium. Wax, for example, and gold and silver I |315| leave out of account, as well as other kinds of material, 67 which, when moulded, take on the particular form of the likeness which is being modelled; and yet each one of them adds to the thing portrayed a distinguishing characteristic which comes from its own substance; and so also the numberless distortions in the reflected images of one single form seen in mirrors both plane and concave and convex. Indeed, if we contemplate the shining constellations, there is nothing that shows greater similarity in form, or which, as an instrument, is by nature more obedient in use than the moon. Receiving as it does from the sun its brilliant light and intense heat, it sends them away to us, not in the state in which they arrived, but, after being merged with it, they change their colour and also acquire a different potency. The heat is gone, and the light becomes faint because of weakness.

“I imagine that you are familiar with the saying found in Heracleitus 68 to the effect that the Lord whose prophetic shrine is at Delphi neither tells nor conceals, but indicates. Add to these words, which are so well said, the thought that the god of this place employs the prophetic priestess for men’s ears just as the sun employs the moon for men’s eyes. For he makes known and reveals his own thoughts, but he makes them known through the associated medium of a mortal body and a soul that is unable to keep quiet or, as it yields itself to the One that |317| moves it, to remain of itself unmoved and tranquil, but, as though tossed amid billows and enmeshed in the stirrings and emotions within itself, it makes itself more and more restless.

“For, as the eddies exercise no sure control over the bodies carried round and round in them, but, since the bodies are carried round and round by a compelling force, while they naturally tend to sink, there results from the two a confused and erratic circular movement, so, in like manner, what is called inspiration seems to be a combination of two impulses, the soul being simultaneously impelled through one of these by some external influence, and through the other by its own nature. Wherefore it is not possible to deal with inanimate and stationary bodies in a way contrary to their nature by bringing force to bear upon them, nor to make a cylinder in motion behave in the manner of a sphere or a cube, nor a lyre like a flute, nor a trumpet like a harp. No, the use of each thing artistically is apparently no other than its natural use. And as for the animate, endowed with power to move of itself and with its share of initiative and reason, could anyone treat it in a manner other than in keeping with the condition, faculty, or nature, already pre-existent in it, as, for example, trying to arouse to music a mind unmusical, or to letters the unlettered, or to eloquence one with no observation or training in speeches? That is something which no one could assert.

§22 “Homer 69 also gives testimony on my side by his assumption that practically nothing is brought to pass for any reason ‘without a god’; 70 he does not, |319| however, represent the god as employing everything for every purpose, but as employing each thing in accordance with the aptitude or faculty that each possesses. Do you not see,” he continued, ‘my dear Diogenianus, that Athena, when she wishes to persuade the Achaeans, summons Odysseus; 71 when she wishes to bring to naught the oaths, seeks out Pandarus; 72 when she wishes to rout the Trojans, goes to Diomedes? 73 The reason is that Diomedes is a man of great strength and a warrior, Pandarus a bowman and a fool, Odysseus adept at speaking and a man of sense. The fact is that Homer did not have the same idea as Pindar, if it really was Pindar who wrote ‘God willing, you may voyage on a mat’; 74 but Homer recognized the fact that some faculties and natures are created for some purposes and others for others, and each one of these is moved to action in a different way, even if the power that moves them all be one and the same. Now this power cannot move to flight that which can only walk or run, nor move a lisp to clear speaking, nor a shrill thin voice to melodious utterance. No, in the case of Battus 75 it was for this reason, when he came to consult the oracle for his voice, that the god sent him as a colonist to Africa, because Battus had a lisp and a shrill thin voice, but also had the qualities of a king and a statesman, and was a man or sense. So in the same way it is impossible for the unlettered man who has never read verse to talk like a poet. Even so the maiden |321| who now serves the god here was born of as lawful and honourable wedlock as anyone, and her life has been in all respects proper; but, having been brought up in the home of poor peasants, she brings nothing with her as the result of technical skill or of any other expertness or faculty, as she goes down into the shrine. On the contrary, just as Xenophon 76 believes that a bride should have seen as little and heard as little as possible before she proceeds to her husband’s house, so this girl, inexperienced and uninformed about practically everything, a pure, virgin soul, becomes the associate of the god. Now we cherish the belief that the god, in giving indications to us, makes use of the calls of herons, wrens, and ravens; but we do not insist that these, inasmuch as they are messengers and heralds of the gods, shall express everything rationally and clearly, and yet we insist that the voice and language of the prophetic priestess, like a choral song in the theatre, shall be presented, not without sweetness and embellishment, but also in verse of a grandiloquent and formal style with verbal metaphors and with a flute to accompany its delivery.

§23 “What statement, then, shall we make about the priestesses of former days? Not one statement, but more than one, I think. For in the first place, as has already been said, 77 they also gave almost all their responses in prose. In the second place, that era produced personal temperaments and natures which had an easy fluency and a bent towards composing poetry, and to them were given also zest and eagerness and readiness of mind abundantly, thus creating an alertness which needed but a slight initial stimulus from without and a prompting of the |323| imagination, with the result that not only were astronomers and philosophers, as Philinus says, attracted at once to their special subjects, but when men came under the influence of abundant wine or emotion, as some note of sadness crept in or some joy befell, a poet would slip into ‘tuneful utterance’; 78 their convivial gatherings were filled with amatory verses and their books with such writings. When Euripides said

Love doth the poet teach,
Even though he know naught of the Muse before, 79

his thought was that Love does not implant in one the poetical or musical faculty, but when it is already existent in one, Love stirs it to activity and makes it fervent, while before it was unnoticed and idle. Or shall we say, my friend, that nobody is in love nowadays, but that love has vanished from the earth because nobody in verse or song

Launches swiftly the shafts
Of sweet-sounding lays
Aimed at the youth beloved,

as Pindar 80 has put it? No, that is absurd. The fact is that loves many in number still go to and fro among men, but, being in association with souls that have no natural talent nor ear for music, they forgo the flute |325| and lyre, but they are no less loquacious and ardent than those of olden time. Besides it is not righteous nor honourable to say that the Academy and Socrates and Plato’s congregation were loveless, for we may read their amatory discourses; 81 but they have left us no poems. 82 As compared with him who says that the only poetess of love was Sappho, how much does he fall short who asserts that the only prophetess was the Sibyl and Aristonica and such others as delivered their oracles in verse? As Chaeremon 83 says,

Wine mixes with the manners of each guest,

and as he drinks, prophetic inspiration, like that of love, makes use of the abilities that it finds ready at hand, and moves each of them that receive it according to the nature of each.

§24 “If, however, we take into consideration the workings of the god and of divine providence, we shall see that the change has been for the better. For the use of language is like the currency of coinage in trade: the coinage which is familiar and well known is also acceptable, although it takes on a different value at different times. There was, then, a time when men used as the coinage of speech verses and tunes and songs, and reduced to poetic and musical form all history and philosophy and, in a word, every experience and action that required a more impressive utterance. Not only is it a fact |327| that nowadays but few people have even a limited understanding of this diction, but in those days the audience comprised all the people, who were delighted with Pindar’s 84 song,

Shepherds and ploughmen and fowlers as well.

Indeed, owing to this aptitude for poetic composition, most men through lyre and song admonished, spoke out frankly, or exhorted; they attained their ends by the use of myths and proverbs, 85 and besides composed hymns, prayers, and paeans in honour of the gods in verse and music, some through their natural talent, others because it was the prevailing custom. Accordingly, the god did not begrudge to the art of prophecy adornment and pleasing grace, nor did he drive away from here the honoured Muse of the tripod, but introduced her rather by awakening and welcoming poetic natures; and he himself provided visions for them, and helped in prompting impressiveness and eloquence as something fitting and admirable. But, as life took on a change along with the change in men’s fortunes and their natures, when usage banished the unusual and did away with the golden topknots 86 and dressing in soft robes, and, on occasion, cut off the stately long hair and caused the buskin to be no longer worn, men accustomed themselves (nor was it a bad thing) to oppose expensive outlay by adorning themselves with economy, and to rate as decorative the plain and |329| simple rather than the ornate and elaborate. So, as language also underwent a change and put off its finery, history descended from its vehicle of versification, and went on foot in prose, whereby the truth was mostly sifted from the fabulous. Philosophy welcomed clearness and teachability in preference to creating amazement, and pursued its investigations through the medium of everyday language. The god put an end to having his prophetic priestess call her own citizens ‘fire-blazers,’ the Spartans ‘snake-devourers,’ men ‘mountain-roamers,’ and rivers ‘mountain-engorgers.’ When he had taken away from the oracles epic versification, strange words, circumlocutions, and vagueness, he had thus made them ready to talk to his consultants as the laws talk to States, or as kings meet with common people, or as pupils listen to teachers, since he adapted the language to what was intelligible and convincing.

§25 “Men ought to understand thoroughly, as Sophocles 87 says, that the god is

For wise men author of dark edicts aye,
For dull men a poor teacher, if concise.

The introduction of clearness was attended also by a revolution in belief, which underwent a change along with everything else. And this was the result: in days of old what was not familiar or common, but was expressed altogether indirectly and through circumlocution, the mass of people imputed to an assumed manifestation of divine power, and held it in awe and reverence; but in later times, being well satisfied to apprehend all these various things clearly and easily without the attendant grandiloquence and artificiality, |331| they blamed the poetic language with which the oracles were clothed, not only for obstructing the understanding of these in their true meaning and for combining vagueness and obscurity with the communication, but already they were coming to look with suspicion upon metaphors, riddles, and ambiguous statements, feeling that these were secluded nooks of refuge devised for furtive withdrawal and retreat for him that should err in his prophecy. Moreover, there was the oft-repeated tale that certain men with a gift for poetry were wont to sit about close by the shrine waiting to catch the words spoken, and then weaving about them a fabric of extempore hexameters or other verses or rhythms as ‘containers,’ so to speak, for the oracles. I forbear to mention how much blame men like Onomacritus, 88 Prodicus, and Cinaethon have brought upon themselves from the oracles by foisting upon them a tragic diction and a grandiloquence of which they had no need, nor have I any kindly feeling toward their changes.

“However, the thing that most filled the poetic art with disrepute was the tribe of wandering soothsayers and rogues that practised their charlatanry about the shrines of the Great Mother and of Serapis, making up oracles, some using their own ingenuity, others taking by lot from certain treatises oracles for the benefit of servants and womenfolk, who are most enticed by verse and a poetic vocabulary. This, then, is not the least among the reasons why poetry, by apparently lending herself to the service of tricksters, mountebanks, |333| and false prophets, lost all standing with truth and the tripod.

§26 “I should not, therefore, be surprised if there were times when there was need of double entendre, indirect statement, and vagueness for the people of ancient days. As a matter of fact, this or that man assuredly did not go down to consult the oracle about the purchase of a slave or about business. No, powerful States and kings and despots, who cherished no moderate designs, used to appeal to the god regarding their course of action; and it was not to the advantage of those concerned with the oracle to vex and provoke these men by unfriendliness through their hearing many of the things that they did not wish to hear. For the god does not follow Euripides 89 when he asserts as if he were laying down a law:

None but Phoebus ought
For men to prophesy.

But inasmuch as the god employs mortal men to assist him and declare his will, whom it is his duty to care for and protect, so that they shall not lose their lives at the hands of wicked men while ministering to a god, he is not willing to keep the truth unrevealed, but he caused the manifestation of it to be deflected, like a ray of light, in the medium of poetry, where it submits to many reflections and undergoes subdivisions, and thus he did away with its repellent harshness, There were naturally some things which it was well that despots should fail to understand and enemies should not learn beforehand. About these, therefore, |335| he put a cloak of intimations and ambiguities 90 which concealed the communication so far as others were concerned, but did not escape the persons involved nor mislead those that had need to know and who gave their minds to the matter. Therefore anyone is very foolish who, now that conditions have become different, complains and makes unwarranted indictment if the god feels that he must no longer help us in the same way, but in a different way.

§27 “Then, besides, there is nothing in poetry more serviceable to language than that the ideas communicated, by being bound up and interwoven with verse, are better remembered and kept firmly in mind. Men in those days had to have a memory for many things. For many things were communicated to them, such as signs for recognizing places, the times for activities, 91 the shrines of gods across the sea, secret burial-places of heroes, hard to find for men setting forth on a distant voyage from Greece. You all, of course, know about Teucer and Cretines and Gnesiochus and Phalanthus and many other leaders of expeditions 92 who had to discover by means of evidential proofs the suitable place of settlement granted to each. Some of these made a mistake, as did Battus. 93 For he thought that he had been forced to land without gaining possession of the place to which he had been sent. Then he came a second time |337| in sore distress. And the god made answer to him: 94

If without going you know far better than I, who have gone there,
Africa, mother of flocks, then I greatly admire your wisdom,

and with these words sent him forth again.

“Lysander also failed to recognize the hill Orchalides (the other name of which is Alopecus) and the river Hoplites 95 and

Also the serpent, the Earth-born, behind him stealthily creeping,

and was vanquished in battle, and fell in that very place by the hand of Neoehorus, a man of Haliartus, who carried a shield which had as its emblem a snake. Numerous other instances of this sort among the people of olden time, difficult to retain and remember, it is not necessary to rehearse to you who know them.

§28 “For my part, I am well content with the settled conditions prevailing at present, and I find them very welcome, and the questions which men now put to the god are concerned with these conditions. There is, in fact, profound peace and tranquillity; war has ceased, there are no wanderings of peoples, no civil strifes, no despotisms, nor other maladies and ills in Greece requiring many unusual remedial forces. Where there is nothing complicated or secret or terrible, but the interrogations are on slight and commonplace matters, like the hypothetical questions in school: if one ought to marry, or to start on a voyage, or to make a loan; and the most important |339| consultations on the part of States concern the yield from crops, the increase of herds, and public health—to clothe such things in verse, to devise circumlocutions, and to foist strange words upon inquiries that call for a simple short answer is the thing done by an ambitious pedant embellishing an oracle to enhance his repute. But the prophetic priestess has herself also nobility of character, and whenever she descends into that place and finds herself in the presence of the god, she cares more for fulfilling her function than for that kind of repute or for men’s praise or blame.

§29 “We also, perhaps, ought to have this frame of mind. But as it is, we act as if we were anxious and fearful lest the place here lose the repute of its three thousand years, and some few persons should cease to come here, contemning the oracle as if it were the lecturing of some popular speaker; and we offer a plea in defence and invent reasons and arguments for matters which we do not understand, and which it is not fitting that we should understand. We try to appease and win over the man who complains, instead of bidding him take his leave for all time,

Since for himself first of all it will prove to be more distressing, 96

if the opinion which he holds about the god is such that he can accept and admire the maxims 97 of the Wise Men inscribed here, ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Avoid extremes,’ because of their conciseness especially, since this very conciseness contains in small compass a compact and firmly-forged sentiment, |341| and yet he can impeach the oracles because they give nearly all their communications in brief, simple, and straightforward language. Now such sayings as these of the Wise Men are in the same case with streams forced into a narrow channel, for they do not keep the transparency or translucence of the sentiment, but if you will investigate what has been written and said about them by men desirous of learning fully the why and wherefore of each, you will not easily find more extensive writings on any other subject. And as for the language of the prophetic priestess, just as the mathematicians call the shortest of lines between two points a straight line, so her language makes no bend nor curve nor doubling nor equivocation, but is straight in relation to the truth; yet, in relation to men’s confidence in it, it is insecure and subject to scrutiny, but as yet it has afforded no proof of its being wrong. On the contrary, it has filled the oracular shrine with votive offerings and gifts from barbarians and Greeks, and has adorned it with beautiful buildings and embellishments provided by the Amphictyonic Council. You yourselves, of course, see many additions in the form of buildings not here before and many restored that were dilapidated and in ruins. As beside flourishing trees others spring up, so also does Pylaea 98 grow in vigour along with Delphi and derives its sustenance from the same source; because of the affluence here it is acquiring a pattern and form and an adornment of shrines and meeting-places and supplies of water such as it has not acquired in the last thousand years. |343|

“They that lived in the neighbourhood of Galaxium in Boeotia became aware of the manifest presence of the god by reason of the copious and overabundant flow of milk: 99

From all the flocks and all the kine
Like purest water from the springs
Milk in abundance welling down
Made music in the milking-pails.
And all the folk in eager haste
Filled every household vessel full;
Wineskin and jar were put to use,
Each wooden pail and earthen tun.

But for us the god grants clearer, stronger, and plainer evidence than this by bringing about after a drought, so to speak, of earlier desolation and poverty, affluence, splendour, and honour. It is true that I feel kindly toward myself in so far as my zeal or services may have furthered these matters with the co-operation of Polycrates and Petraeus; 100 and I feel kindly toward the man who has been the leader in our administration and has planned and carried out practically all that has been done. 101 But it is not possible that a change of such sort and of such magnitude could ever have been brought about in a short time through human diligence if a god were not present here to lend divine inspiration to his oracle.

§30 ‘But, just as in those days there were people who complained of the obliquity and vagueness of the oracles, so today there are people who make an unwarranted indictment against their extreme |345| simplicity. Such an attitude of mind is altogether puerile and silly. It is a fact that children take more delight and satisfaction in seeing rainbows, haloes, and comets than in seeing moon and sun; and so these persons yearn for the riddles, allegories, and metaphors which are but reflections of the prophetic art when it acts upon a human imagination. And if they cannot ascertain to their satisfaction the reason for the change, they go away, after pronouncing judgement against the god, but not against us nor against themselves for being unable by reasoning to attain to a comprehension of the god’s purpose.’


1^ Pausanias, x. 6. 2-3.

2^ Cf. Plato, Republic, 368a.

3^ Presumably the thirty-seven statues of Lysander and his officers (erected after the battle of Aegospotami), which stood near the entrance inside the sacred precinct. Cf. Life of Lysander, chap. xviii. (443a).

4^ Tempering in the water of Peirene was held to be one important factor in the production of Corinthian bronze. Cf. e.g. Pausanias, ii. 3. 3. On the whole subject of Corinthian bronze, it is worth while to consult an article by T. Leslie Shear, ‘A Hoard of Coins found in Corinth in 1930,’ in the American Journal of Archaeology, xxv. (1931) pp. 139-151, which records the results of chemical analyses of samples of the bronze.

5^ Making the ancient electrum, which was often used for coinage, plate, and similar purposes.

6^ Cf. Life of Coriolanus, chap. xxxviii. (232a).

7^ Kock, Com. Att. Frag. iii. p. 495, Adespota, no. 461. Plutarch quotes this again in Moralia, 777c.

8^ Not to be found in Aristotle’s extant works.

9^ Od. vii. 107. Cf. Life of Alexander, chap. xxxvi. (686c); Athenaeus, 582d.

10^ Plutarch recounts the story of this oracle in Moralia, 340c.

11^ Called the Epicurean in Moralia, 673 c.

12^ Cf. Aelian, Varia Historia, xiv. 15. According to the scholium on Aristophanes, Plutus, 602, the Pauson mentioned there is probably the same man.

13^ Cf. the scholium on Theocritus, iv. 31.

14^ Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. p. 96, Heracleitus, no. 92.

15^ Pindar, Frag. 32 (ed. Christ).

16^ Cf. H. Richards in the Classical Review, xxix. 233.

17^ Cf. Moralia, 38a-b.

18^ Cf. 404b and 414e, infra.

19^ Frag. 395.

20^ Instead of the long syllable demanded by the metre. Cf. Athenaeus, 632 d.

21^ 21 Cf. Pausanias, x. 9. 7, with Xenophon, Hellenica, vi. 4. 9. Presumably the same man is referred to in both passages, as he may well have lived till the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C., and he may be mentioned also in Xenophon, Hellenica, i. 6. 32, but where his name was Hiero or Hermon cannot, apparently, be determined with certainty.

22^ Cf. Life of Lysander, chap. xviii. (443 a).

23^ Cf. Pausanias, x. 15. 5.

24^ Cf. Athenaeus, 605 c.

25^ Rhetoric, iii. 11 (1411 b 31); cf. Frag. 130 (ed. Rose).

26^ Frag. 383.

27^ Cf. Pausanias, x. 12. 1 and 5; and the scholium on Plato, Phaedrus, 244b.

28^ Cf. Plutarch, Moralia, 566d.

29^ Cf. Moralia, 566 e; this is, of course, the famous eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Dicaearcheia is the Latin Puteoli (Pozzuoli).

30^ The reference is to a much quoted line of Euripides which will be found in 432c, infra: ‘bene qui coniciet, vatem hunc perhibeto optimum,’ as Cicero translates it, De Div. ii. 5 (12). See Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, no. 973; and Kock, Com. Att. Frag. iii. 65, Menander, no. 225.

31^ Cf. Life of Agesilaüs, chap. iii. (597 c); Life of Lysander, chap. xxii. (446 a); Pausanias, iii. 8. 9, where the four verses are repeated with very slight variation.

32^ Cf. Strabo, i. 3. 16; Justin, xxx. 4. 1.

33^ Cf. 398 f, supra.

34^ Cf. Usener, Epicurea, p. 342.

35^ Cf. Moralia, 164a.

36^ Selinon (celery), from which the city derives its name.

37^ Od. iii. 1.

38^ Cf. 355b, supra.

39^ Von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, ii. 652-656 (p. 196).

40^ Cf. Aristophanes, Clouds, 749; Plato, Gorgias, 513 a; Horace, Epodes, 5. 46; Propertius, i. 1. 19, and especially Lucan, vi. 438-506; cf. also 416 f infra.

41^ Plato, Timaeus, 90 a; cf. Moralia, 600 f.

42^ Cf. Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. p. 243, Empedocles, no. b 44; cf. also Moralia, 890 b.

43^ Cf. the note on 386b, supra.

44^ Cf. Moralia, 932b.

45^ Cf. Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, ii. 7. 2.

46^ Cf. Herodotus, ii. 134-135.

47^ Cf. Moralia, 556f.

48^ Ibid. 336c, Athenaeus, 591b; cf. also Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyklopaedie, Supplement V. pp. 87-88.

49^ ‘Toad.’

50^ Cf. Moralia, 148d.

51^ Xenophon, Symposium, 2. 3.

52^ Ibid. 2. 11.

53^ Ibid. 9. 5.

54^ Ibid. 2. 22.

55^ Cf. Herodotus, i. 51.

56^ Cf. Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. i. p. 308, Theopompus, no. 182.

57^ Cf. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, i. 502 (p. 112).

58^ Diels, Poetarum Phil. Frag. p. 167; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, v. 8. 48 (p. 674 Potter).

59^ Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. iii. pp. 409-410, Simonides, nos. 44 and 45; or Edmonds, Lyra Graeca, ii. p. 314. Cf. also Poulsen, Delphi, 4; but the attempted restorations of the verses by the various editors do not as yet display any felicity.

60^ Unfortunately the cause of Pindar’s astonishment has been omitted by the copyist, who left a blank here.

61^ Thucydides, i. 118.

62^ Ibid. v. 16. The meaning seems to be that they would have to buy their grain.

63^ Cf. Life of Nicias, chap. xiii. (532 a), where it is explained that the god advised them τὴν ἡσυχίαν ἄγειν, ‘to keep Quiet.’

64^ Cf. Moralia, 700d.

65^ Cf. 397c, supra, and 414e, infra.

66^ Cf. Moralia, 163e.

67^ Obviously what is left is marble, the less plastic material.

68^ Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. p. 86, Heracleitus, no. b 93.

69^ Il. ii. 169; v. 1.

70^ For example, Od. ii. 372; xv. 531.

71^ Il. ii. 169.

72^ Il. iv. 86.

73^ Il. v. 1.

74^ From the Thyestes of Euripides: Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, no. 397; but the line is sometimes ascribed to other poets also.

75^ Cf. Herodotus, iv. 155; Pindar, Pythian Odes, v., and the scholium to Pythian iv. 10.

76^ Oeconomicus, 7. 4-5.

77^ 403e and 404a, supra.

78^ Cf. Moralia, 623 a.

79^ The quotation, from the Stheneboea of Euripides, Plutarch repeats in more complete form in Moralia, 622c and 762b. Cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p. 569, Euripides, no. 663.

80^ Pindar, Isthmian Odes, ii. 3.

81^ Such, for example, as the Phaedrus of Plato.

82^ A few epigrams (some amatory) attributed to Plato may be found in the Anthology; cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. ii. 295-312; Edmonds, Elegy and Iambic, ii. pp. 2-11 (L.C.L.); and for Socrates' poems see Suidas s.v.; Plato, Phaedo, 60c-d; Diogenes Laertius, ii. 42; Athenaeus, 628 e; Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. ii. 287-288.

83^ Cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p. 787, no. 16; cf. also 437d-e, infra.

84^ Isthmian Odes, i. 68: repeated more fully in Moralia, 473 a.

85^ Passages from Hesiod, Theognis, and Archilochus might be cited in confirmation of these statements. See also F. B. Stevens, ‘The Topics of Counsel and Deliberation in Prephilosophic Greek Literature’ in Classical Philology, xxviii. (1933) pp. 104-120.

86^ Cf. Thucydides, i. 6.

87^ Cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p. 298, Sophocles, no. 704 (no. 771 Pearson).

88^ Cf. Herodotus, vii. 6.

89^ Phoenissae, 958.

90^ For example, the famous oracle given to Croesus (Herodotus, i. 53; Aristotle, Rhetoric, iii. 5 (1407 a 39)) that if he crossed the river Halys he should overthrow a great kingdom; but the kingdom was his own.

91^ As in Hesiod’s Works and Days.

92^ Cf. Geographi Graeci Minores, i. p. 236, Scymnus, no. 949; scholium on Apollonius Rhodius, ii. 351.

93^ Battus was sent by an oracle to found a colony in Africa, but settled in an island (Plataea) off the coast. Since the colony did not prosper, he came again to consult the oracle: cf. Herodotus, iv. 155-157; Pindar, Pythian Odes, v.; Aristotle, frag. 611. 16 (ed. Rose).

94^ The same lines are found in Herodotus, iv. 157.

95^ Life of Lysander, chap. xxix. (450b-c).

96^ Adapted from Homer, Od. ii. 190.

97^ Cf. Moralia, 164b, 385d, 511a.

98^ A suburb of Delphi, presumably on the road to the Crisa, meeting-place of the Amphictyonic Council.

99^ Cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. iii. p. 719, Adespota, no. 90; Pindar, Frag. 101-102 ed. Christ; Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, Hermes, xxxiv. p. 225.

100^ L. Cassius Petraeus; cf. Pomtow, Beiträge zur Topographie von Delphi, p. 122.

101^ There is a lacuna in the mss. here, but the sense is clear.

Top ↑

Plutarch of Chaeronea
(46 A.D.–died after 119 A.D.)
Plutarch was a notable Greek Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and was the priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi for 30 years. He is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of illustrious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia, a collection of essays and speeches.


Plutarch. Moralia, vol. 5. F. C. Babbitt, trans. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1936. This text is in the public domain.