Friday, 5 March 2010

The Athenians consult the Delphic Oracle as the Persians invade, 480bc

It is one of the frustrating aspects of the Thermopylae campaign that the key factor in determining the actions of the Athenians is clouded in mystery. Like other Greek states, Athens sent an embassy to Delphi to ask the Oracle for the advice of the god Apollo. The message given was of profound importance, so it is most annoying that we have only the vaguest idea of when this event took place.

Herodotus places the Athenian embassy to Delphi in the early spring, but it is clear that the debate on the answer and vote on what action to take did not take place until after the expedition to Tempe, perhaps in late June or early July. But whenever the visit to Delphi took place, it was a dramatic one.

The Athenian envoys travelled to the sacred city, climbed the holy hill and washed themselves in the sacred spring. They were then admitted to the precincts of Apollo and escorted up the Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo. So far everything had been carried out as prescribed by tradition and as expected. But when the envoys entered the room where the oracle priestess herself awaited them, they were in for a shock.

They had not even had time to approach the priestess with their enquiry, when the oracle priestess shrieked at them in fury.

“Why sit you, doomed ones?” she demanded. “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 headlong god of war
Speeding in a Syrian chariot shall bring you low.
Many a tower will he destroy, not yours alone,
And give to pitiless fire many shrines of gods,
Which even now stand sweating, with fear quivering,
While over the roofs 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 Athenians were stunned, as well they might have been. This was one of the most dramatic, lengthy and most detailed utterances ever given by the Delphic Oracle – and it was all bad news for Athens. There could be no doubt that the city would be destroyed, its temples defiled and its people doomed.

What happened next is rather obscure. Herodotus describes how the Athenians returned to the oracle a second time, on this occasion carrying olive branches as a symbol of their supplication and devotion. The priestess was this time moved to give a different message from the god Apollo.

“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.”

This second divine message was not much more encouraging than the first though, as we shall see it was to lead the Athenians into changing their plan for the war.

There are a couple of interesting allusions within the prophecy which would have had a great impact on religious people at the time. First, as in the message to the Spartans, Apollo makes it clear that Zeus is on the side of the Persians. Second, Athene is shown to be on the side of the Athenians – so Xerxes’s sacrifice to the goddess at Troy had not worked. Pallas, incidentally, is a title of Athene meaning “maiden”.

There are also clues that some time had elapsed since the first prophecy. Herodotus implies, but does not state, that the two messages were given during the same visit to the oracle by the envoys of Athens. However, his insistence that it was the bringing of branches of olives to Apollo that caused the new message to be given hints differently.

High on the Acropolis in Athens, outside the temple of Athene, grew a sacred olive tree. The Athenians believed that the olive had been a special gift from the goddess Athene to her beloved city in the remote past. The sacred tree was the direct descendent of this original plant, tended by priests since the dawn of time. It would make sense for the Athenians to do something special to try to gain a change of heart from the gods. What better than to return to their city, arrange for their fellow citizens to pray to Athene and then take sprigs of the sacred olive to Apollo. The Oracle’s statement that Athene was pleading with Zeus to spare Athens would imply that some such action had been taken.

If this were the case, the journey to and fro would have taken some time. The interval between the two trips to Delphi may have coincided with the Tempe expedition.

This is an extract from The Battle of Thermopylae, a Campaign in Context by Rupert Matthews.

1 comment:

  1. I intend to have a holiday in Greece and go around changing all the road signs to Delphi to make them ready slightly ambiguously.