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Aug 11, 2006 8:25 am


Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: Divination and Democracy by Hugh Bowden



[Cross-posted to Archaeoastronomy]Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle

Athens is the city that gave the world democracy. While the idea has been inherited, the reality was rather different to a modern democracy. In ancient Athens all the citizens voted on the laws, whereas these days people vote for people who vote for the laws. Or even vote for the person who will unilaterally decide the laws for themselves. While that might make Athens more democratic, in some ways Athens was also less free. Certainly all the citizens voted but so be a citizen you had to be male, quite old and the son of Athenian parents. If your parents were slaves or metics (resident foreigners or Athenians deprived of citizen status) then you had no vote. A lot of these differences are the meat and drink of usual studies into ancient democracy. But it wasn't just the human world which was viewed differently, so was the divine. This is the subject Bowden's book Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: Divination and Democracy examines, the relationship between the will of the Gods and the will of the people in ancient Athens. Specifically he looks at the will of Apollo as it was revealed by the Delphic Oracle. The introduction makes the case for doing this well:

What is the relationship between religion and democracy? More precisely, to what extent should religious considerations affect the decisions taken by citizens in a democracy? In the modern world it is generally thought that religion and politics occupy, or should occupy, two different spheres. Religion may promote moral goodness, and moral goodness may be considered desirable in a community, but the idea of giving preference to the divine will - however it is established - over the will of the people - as revealed by a vote - would be seen as fundamentally undemocratic. This understanding pervades not only approaches to modern democracies, but also the study of democracy in the ancient world.

For the rest of the book Bowden shows how this cannot be the case for the ancient world. In world where the Gods are thought to umbrage and exact revenge in unpleasant ways it's a brave ruler to defies them.

It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to think about the role of religion in modern politics at the moment. Usually matching ancient Greek religion with modern fundamentalism would make a classicist wince. The idea of fundamentalism is that there is a canonical will of the God(s) which can be known. Greek religion in contrast had no core texts, but Bowden makes a couple of very good points. One is that fundamentalism is about the practice of religion. It is possible to debate the finer points of religion with a fundamentalist, so long as you follow the practices. If you're a woman for instance you'd have to cover your head, stay silent and not express any opinions. Which is very similar to the idealised position of women in ancient Greece. Bowden says that Greek religion was also about practice of religion and notes Margaret Attwood's fundamentalist Christian state in A Handmaid's Tale is similar to the ancient Greeks in their treatment of women. He's not arguing that Greeks were fundamentalists, but that there other ways of thinking about how religion interacts with democracy. This is all from the first couple of pages of the introduction.

The first chapter tackles the problem of how the Oracle worked. This is arguably the most reknowned religious site in ancient Greece (some people would say Olympia). This is a problem because surprisingly little information survives about how the oracle operated. That wouldn't normally be surprising. There's not a lot known about the Eleusinian Mysteries either, but the thing about the Eleusinian Mysteries is that they were a secret cult, so it was considered impious to discuss it. Delphi on the other hand had no such restrictions, so why do we know so little? The best guess I think is from Parke who said that the method of the Oracle was so well known that there was no need to specifically document it.

Bowden makes a strong case that the Oracle remained politically neutral during its operation. In his description he makes clear that there could have been too many randomising factors to sustain a specific political programme and there would be little to gain from doing so. He also challenges the notion that Delphi's influence peaked in the sixth century BC and from then the sanctuary entered a graceful decline. This, he argues, is based on a reading of Herodotus which isn't supported by other sources. There may be a desire to see the rise of 'rational' politics in the classical period, but there is no corresponding decline in religious practices.

Chapter Two asks What did the Athenians think of the Delphic Oracle? and chapter Three What did Historians and Philosphers say about the Delphic Oracle? Both chapters show the influence of the oracle on civic life. Chapter two paints a picture of a city where the Gods are as unavoidable in civic life as other citizens. There are the thousands of images known from pottery, the references in the plays attended by citizens as well as the many festival days. This contrasts with the more fragmentary view of the Oracle in the texts of the philosophers and historians. In the works of Xenophon and Thucydides Bowden notes there are very few reference to the Oracle, certain when compared to Herodotus. This leads him to conclude that all the historical texts should be treated with caution whether they are effusive or silent on the Oracle.

Chapters four and five are How and why did the Athenians consult the Delphic oracle and What did the Athenians ask the Delphic oracle? This is a difficult question. If you have people deciding actions what do you need the gods for? One example given is whether certain lands on sacred boundaries can be farmed. The ancient Greeks like moderns talk to the gods, but they also liked the Gods to talk back. He also gives a novel reading of the oracles to Themistocles.

With the Persians set to invade Athens, the Athenians sent out to the oracle at Delphi for advice. The first response was to flee. The Phocaeans had already done this leaving their city on the shores of Anatolia to settle in the western Mediterranean. Themistocles decided this was not an acceptable answer and asked again, to which the oracle replied that they should shelter behind the wooden walls. After much debate this was agreed to be a reference to the navy. It was through crafty seamanship that the Athenian navy defeated the superior Persian forces.

The puzzle is why send for a second oracle? Bowden argues, with justification, that this is an artefact of Herodotus, the source for the story. Herodotus's work isn't history as an impartial tale of how things happened. It's also an effort to create an epic tale, like those the Greeks were familiar with, with known people in the starring roles. Splitting one oracle into two halves increases the dramatic tension. Bowden argues Herodotus got away with it because it flattered the Athenians. On the other hand as well as Father of History he was also known as Father of Lies.

These chapters again illustrate the importance of the supernatural in ancient Greece. Indeed a division between natural/supernatual is almost certainly anachronistic. In this situation is makes sense for people to consult the gods for solutions to problems they cannot answer.

The last chapter before the conclusion initially appears to be slightly askew from the others: Why did the Athenians (and other Greek cities) go to war? This is another insight into how different ancient society was. To be a citizen was to be a soldier. A citizen was someone who would fight for his home city, and to be allowed to fight in a city's army was to be a citizen. From this point of view war becomes almost a necessity because how else are you to fight alongside your comrades without a war?

War for the Athenians was a dangerous business. If you attacked another city they could fight back, which is not an experience familiar to all modern democracies. The uncertainty meant that divine approval was sought on a frequent basis, for any substantial action. Bowden notes that the two constants of life for the Athenian democracy were farming and war - two activities in which chance played a large part.

The conclusion neatly draws this all together. It is tempting to say that a democracy in a state of perpetual war guided by God(s) neatly parallels one or two modern examples. There are similarities, but there are also differences. Bowden notes that the divine doesn't make much of an appearance in the constitution of modern democracies. We might ask God to save the Queen or insist that in God we trust, but these he argues are post-enlightenment additions. They are not part of the roots of the democracy. Athenian religion in contrast is very different. Bowden argues that democracy was a means for establishing the will of the Gods.

It's an excellent book and affordable. Occasionally it can be easy to be lost in specialisms. I don't know of any researcher in Athenian Democracy who would say ritual was unimportant, nor of anyone researching ancient ritual that would say the politics of a city were irrelevant. Yet by specialising it can be possible to lose this wider view. Ancient religion can be difficult to get a grip on. In the classical past it was extremely close to politics in its practice. This book is a fantastic demonstration of how closely the two were intertwined. It's also well-written, well-referenced and well-indexed. In the latter case there's an intelligible index of the ancient passages he uses to make his case as well as the standard index.

You can also read a review of the book at BMCR.




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