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Jacob Abbott

The Oracles

As soon as Cyrus had become established on his throne as King of the Medes and Persians, his influence and power began to extend westward toward the confines of the empire of Crœsus, king of Lydia. Crœsus was aroused from the dejection and stupor into which the death of his son had plunged him, as related in a former chapter, by this threatening danger. He began to consider very earnestly what he could do to avert it.

The River Halys, a great river of Asia Minor, which flows northward into the Black Sea, was the eastern boundary of the Lydian empire. Crœsus began to entertain the design of raising an army and crossing the Halys, to invade the empire of Cyrus, thinking that that would perhaps be safer policy than to wait for Cyrus to cross the Halys, and bring the war upon him. Still, the enterprise of invading Persia was a vast undertaking, and the responsibility great of being the aggressor in the contest. After carefully considering the subject in all its aspects, Crœsus found himself still perplexed and undecided.

The Greeks had a method of looking into futurity, and of ascertaining, as they imagined, by supernatural means, the course of future events, which was peculiar to that people; at least no other nation seems ever to have practiced it in the precise form which prevailed among them. It was by means of the oracles. There were four or five localities in the Grecian countries which possessed, as the people thought, the property of inspiring persons who visited them, or of giving to some natural object certain supernatural powers by which future events could be foretold. The three most important of these oracles were situated respectively at Delphi, at Dodona, and at the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon.

Delphi was a small town built in a sort of valley, shaped like an amphitheater, on the southern side of Mount Parnassus. Mount Parnassus is north of the Peloponnesus, not very far from the shores of the Gulf of Corinth. Delphi was in a picturesque and romantic situation, with the mountain behind it, and steep, precipitous rocks descending to the level country before. These precipices answered instead of walls to defend the temple and the town. In very early times a cavern or fissure in the rocks was discovered at Delphi, from which there issued a stream of gaseous vapor, which produced strange effects on those who inhaled it. It was supposed to inspire them. People resorted to the place to obtain the benefit of these inspirations, and of the knowledge which they imagined they could obtain by means of them. Finally, a temple was built, and a priestess resided constantly in it, to inhale the vapor and give the responses. When she gave her answers to those who came to consult the oracle, she sat upon a sort of three-legged stool, which was called the sacred tripod. These stools were greatly celebrated as a very important part of the sacred apparatus of the place. This oracle became at last so renowned, that the greatest potentates, and even kings, came from great distances to consult it, and they made very rich and costly presents at the shrine when they came. These presents, it was supposed, tended to induce the god who presided over the oracle to give to those who made them favorable and auspicious replies. The deity that dictated the predictions of this oracle was Apollo.

There was another circumstance, besides the existence of the cave, which signalized the locality where this oracle was situated. The people believed that this spot was the exact center of the earth, which of course they considered as one vast plain. There was an ancient story that Jupiter, in order to determine the central point of creation, liberated two eagles at the same time, in opposite quarters of the heavens, that they might fly toward one another, and so mark the middle point by the place of their meeting. They met at Delphi.

Another of the most celebrated oracles was at Dodona. Dodona was northwest of Delphi, in the Epirus, which was a country in the western part of what is now Turkey in Europe, and on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. The origin of the oracle at Dodona was, as the priestesses there told Herodotus, as follows: In very ancient times, two black doves were set at liberty in Thebes, which was a very venerable and sacred city of Egypt. One flew toward the north and the other toward the west. The former crossed the Mediterranean, and then continued its flight over the Peloponnesus, and over all the southern provinces of Greece, until it reached Dodona. There it alighted on a beech-tree, and said, in a human voice, that that spot was divinely appointed for the seat of a sacred oracle. The other dove flew to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon.

There were three priestesses at Dodona in the days of Herodotus. Their names were Promenea, Timarete, and Nicandre. The answers of the oracle were, for a time, obtained by the priestesses from some appearances which they observed in the sacred beech on which the dove alighted, when the tree was agitated by the wind. In later times, however, the responses were obtained in a still more singular manner. There was a brazen statue of a man, holding a whip in his hand. The whip had three lashes, which were formed of brazen chains. At the end of each chain was an astragalus, as it was called, which was a row of little knots or knobs, such as were commonly appended to the lashes of whips used in those days for scourging criminals.

These heavy lashes hung suspended in the hand of the statue over a great brazen caldron, in such a manner that the wind would impel them, from time to time, against its sides, causing the caldron to ring and resound like a gong. There was, however, something in this resonance supernatural and divine; for, though it was not loud, it was very long continued, when once the margin of the caldron was touched, however gently, by the lashes. In fact, it was commonly said that if touched in the morning, it would be night before the reverberations would have died entirely away. Such a belief could be very easily sustained among the common people; for a large, open-mouthed vessel like the Dodona caldron, with thin sides formed of sonorous metal, might be kept in a state of continual vibration by the wind alone.

They who wished to consult this oracle came with rich presents both for the priestesses and for the shrine, and when they had made the offerings, and performed the preliminary ceremonies required, they propounded their questions to the priestesses, who obtained the replies by interpreting, according to certain rules which they had formed, the sounds emitted by the mysterious gong.

The second black dove which took its flight from Thebes alighted, as we have already said, in the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon. This oasis was a small fertile spot in the midst of the deserts of Africa, west of Egypt, about a hundred miles from the Nile, and somewhat nearer than that to the Mediterranean Sea. It was first discovered in the following manner: A certain king was marching across the deserts, and his army, having exhausted their supplies of water, were on the point of perishing with thirst, when a ram mysteriously appeared, and took a position before them as their guide. They followed him, and at length came suddenly upon a green and fertile valley, many miles in length. The ram conducted them into this valley, and then suddenly vanished, and a copious fountain of water sprung up in the place where he had stood. The king, in gratitude for this divine interposition, consecrated the spot and built a temple upon it, which was called the temple of Jupiter Ammon. The dove alighted here, and ever afterward the oracles delivered by the priests of this temple were considered as divinely inspired.

These three were the most important oracles. There were, however, many others of subordinate consequence, each of which had its own peculiar ceremonies, all senseless and absurd. At one there was a sort of oven-shaped cave in the rocks, the spot being inclosed by an artificial wall. The cave was about six feet wide and eight feet deep. The descent into it was by a ladder. Previously to consulting this oracle certain ceremonies were necessary, which it required several days to perform. The applicant was to offer sacrifices to many different deities, and to purify himself in various ways. He was then conducted to a stream in the neighborhood of the oracle, where he was to be anointed and washed. Then he drank a certain magical water, called the water of forgetfulness, which made him forget all previous sorrows and cares. Afterward he drank of another enchanted cup, which contained the water of remembrance; this was to make him remember all that should be communicated to him in the cave. He then descended the ladder, and received within the cave the responses of the oracle.

At another of these oracles, which was situated in Attica, the magic virtue was supposed to reside in a certain marble statue, carved in honor of an ancient and celebrated prophet, and placed in a temple. Whoever wished to consult this oracle must abstain from wine for three days, and from food of every kind for twenty-four hours preceding the application. He was then to offer a ram as a sacrifice; and afterward, taking the skin of the ram from the carcass, he was to spread it out before the statue and lie down upon it to sleep. The answers of the oracle came to him in his dreams.

But to return to Crœsus. He wished to ascertain, by consulting some of these oracles, what the result of his proposed invasion of the dominions of Cyrus would be, in case he should undertake it; and in order to determine which of the various oracles were most worthy of reliance, he conceived the plan of putting them all to a preliminary test. He effected this object in the following manner:

He dispatched a number of messengers from Sardis, his capital, sending one to each of the various oracles. He directed these messengers to make their several journeys with all convenient dispatch; but, in order to provide for any cases of accidental detention or delay, he allowed them all one hundred days to reach their several places of destination. On the hundredth day from the time of their leaving Sardis, they were all to make applications to the oracles, and inquire what Crœsus, king of Lydia, was doing at that time. Of course he did not tell them what he should be doing; and as the oracles themselves could not possibly know how he was employed by any human powers, their answers would seem to test the validity of their claims to powers divine.

Crœsus kept the reckoning of the days himself with great care, and at the hour appointed on the hundredth day, he employed himself in boiling the flesh of a turtle and of a lamb together in a brazen vessel. The vessel was covered with a lid, which was also of brass. He then awaited the return of the messengers. They came in due time, one after another, bringing the replies which they had severally obtained. The replies were all unsatisfactory, except that of the oracle at Delphi. This answer was in verse, as, in fact, the responses of that oracle always were. The priestess who sat upon the tripod was accustomed to give the replies in an incoherent and half-intelligible manner, as impostors are very apt to do in uttering prophecies, and then the attendant priests and secretaries wrote them out in verse.

The verse which the messenger brought back from the Delphic tripod was in Greek; but some idea of its style, and the import of it, is conveyed by the following imitation:

"I number the sands, I measure the sea,

What's hidden to others is known to me.

The lamb and the turtle are simmering slow.

With brass above them and brass below."

Of course, Crœsus decided that the Delphic oracle was the one that he must rely upon for guidance in respect to his projected campaign. And he now began to prepare to consult it in a manner corresponding with the vast importance of the subject, and with his own boundless wealth. He provided the most extraordinary and sumptuous presents. Some of these treasures were to be deposited in the temple, as sacred gifts, for permanent preservation there. Others were to be offered as a burnt sacrifice in honor of the god. Among the latter, besides an incredible number of living victims, he caused to be prepared a great number of couches, magnificently decorated with silver and gold, and goblets and other vessels of gold, and dresses of various kinds richly embroidered, and numerous other articles, all intended to be used in the ceremonies preliminary to his application to the oracle. When the time arrived, a vast concourse of people assembled to witness the spectacle. The animals were sacrificed, and the people feasted on the flesh; and when these ceremonies were concluded, the couches, the goblets, the utensils of every kind, the dresses—every thing, in short, which had been used on the occasion, were heaped up into one great sacrificial pile, and set on fire. Every thing that was combustible was consumed, while the gold was melted, and ran into plates of great size, which were afterward taken out from the ashes. Thus it was the workmanship only of these articles which was destroyed and lost by the fire. The gold, in which the chief value consisted, was saved. It was gold from the Pactolus.

Besides these articles, there were others made, far more magnificent and costly, for the temple itself. There was a silver cistern, or tank, large enough to hold three thousand gallons of wine. This tank was to be used by the inhabitants of Delphi in their great festivals. There was also a smaller cistern, or, immense goblet, as it might, perhaps, more properly be called, which was made of gold. There were also many other smaller presents, such as basins, vases, and statues, all of silver and gold, and of the most costly workmanship. The gold, too, which had been taken from the fire, was cast again, a part of it being formed into the image of a lion, and the rest into large plates of metal for the lion to stand upon. The image was then set up upon the plates, within the precincts of the temple.

There was one piece of statuary which Crœsus presented to the oracle at Delphi, which was, in some respects, more extraordinary than any of the rest. It was called the bread-maker. It was an image representing a woman, a servant in the household of Crœsus, whose business it was to bake the bread. The reason that induced Crœsus to honor this bread-maker with a statue of gold was, that on one occasion during his childhood she had saved his life. The mother of Crœsus died when he was young, and his father married a second time. The second wife wished to have some one of her  children, instead of Crœsus, succeed to her husband's throne. In order, therefore, to remove Crœsus out of the way, she prepared some poison and gave it to the bread-maker, instructing her to put it into the bread which Crœsus was to eat. The bread-maker received the poison and promised to obey. But, instead of doing so, she revealed the intended murder to Crœsus, and gave the poison to the queen's own children. In gratitude for this fidelity to him, Crœsus, when he came to the throne, caused this statue to be made, and now he placed it at Delphi, where he supposed it would forever remain. The memory of his faithful servant was indeed immortalized by the measure, though the statue itself, as well as all these other treasures, in process of time disappeared. In fact, statues of brass or of marble generally make far more durable monuments than statues of gold; and no structure or object of art is likely to be very permanent among mankind unless the workmanship is worth more than the material.

Crœsus did not proceed himself to Delphi with these presents, but sent them by the hands of trusty messengers, who were instructed to perform the ceremonies required, to offer the gifts, and then to make inquiries of the oracle in the following terms.

"Crœsus, the sovereign of Lydia and of various other kingdoms, in return for the wisdom which has marked your former declarations, has sent you these gifts. He now furthermore desires to know whether it is safe for him to proceed against the Persians, and if so, whether it is best for him to seek the assistance of any allies."

The answer was as follows:

"If Crœsus crosses the Halys, and prosecutes a war with Persia, a mighty empire will be overthrown. It will be best for him to form an alliance with the most powerful states of Greece."

Crœsus was extremely pleased with this response. He immediately resolved on undertaking the expedition against Cyrus; and to express his gratitude for so favorable an answer to his questions, he sent to Delphi to inquire what was the number of inhabitants in the city, and, when the answer was reported to him, he sent a present of a sum of money to every one. The Delphians, in their turn, conferred special privileges and honors upon the Lydians and upon Crœsus in respect to their oracle, giving them the precedence in all future consultations, and conferring upon them other marks of distinction and honor.

At the time when Crœsus sent his present to the inhabitants of Delphi, he took the opportunity to address another inquiry to the oracle, which was, whether his power would ever decline. The oracle replied in a couplet of Greek verse, similar in its style to the one recorded on the previous occasion.

It was as follows:

"Whene'er a mule shall mount upon the Median throne,

Then, and not till then, shall great Crœsus fear to lose his own."

This answer pleased the king quite as much as the former one had done. The allusion to the contingency of a mule's reigning in Media he very naturally regarded as only a rhetorical and mystical mode of expressing an utter impossibility. Crœsus considered himself and the continuance of his power as perfectly secure. He was fully confirmed in his determination to organize his expedition without any delay, and to proceed immediately to the proper measures for obtaining the Grecian alliance and aid which the oracle had recommended. The plans which he formed, and the events which resulted, will be described in subsequent chapters.

In respect to these Grecian oracles, it is proper here to state, that there has been much discussion among scholars on the question how they were enabled to maintain, for so long a period, so extended a credit among a people as intellectual and well informed as the Greeks. It was doubtless by means of a variety of contrivances and influences that this end was attained. There is a natural love of the marvelous among the humbler classes in all countries, which leads them to be very ready to believe in what is mystic and supernatural; and they accordingly exaggerate and color such real incidents as occur under any strange or remarkable circumstances, and invest any unusual phenomena which they witness with a miraculous or supernatural interest. The cave at Delphi might really have emitted gases which would produce quite striking effects upon those who inhaled them; and how easy it would be for those who witnessed these effects to imagine that some divine and miraculous powers must exist in the aërial current which produced them. The priests and priestesses, who inhabited the temples in which these oracles were contained, had, of course, a strong interest in keeping up the belief of their reality in the minds of the community; so were, in fact, all the inhabitants of the cities which sprung up around them. They derived their support from the visitors who frequented these places, and they contrived various ways for drawing contributions, both of money and gifts, from all who came. In one case there was a sacred stream near an oracle, where persons, on permission from the priests, were allowed to bathe. After the bathing, they were expected to throw pieces of money into the stream. What afterward, in such cases, became of the money, it is not difficult to imagine.

Nor is it necessary to suppose that all these priests and priestesses were impostors. Having been trained up from infancy to believe that the inspirations were real, they would continue to look upon them as such all their lives. Even at the present day we shall all, if we closely scrutinize our mental habits, find ourselves continuing to take for granted, in our maturer years, what we inconsiderately imbibed or were erroneously taught in infancy, and that, often, in cases where the most obvious dictates of reason, or even the plain testimony of our senses might show us that our notions are false. The priests and priestesses, therefore, who imposed on the rest of mankind, may have been as honestly and as deep in the delusion themselves as any of their dupes.

The answers of the oracles were generally vague and indefinite, and susceptible of almost any interpretation, according to the result. Whenever the event corresponded with the prediction, or could be made to correspond with it by the ingenuity of the commentators, the story of the coincidence would, of course, be every where spread abroad, becoming more striking and more exact at each repetition. Where there was a failure, it would not be direct and absolute, on account of the vagueness and indefiniteness of the response, and there would therefore be no interest felt in hearing or in circulating the story. The cases, thus, which would tend to establish the truth of the oracle, would be universally known and remembered, while those of a contrary bearing would be speedily forgotten.

There is no doubt, however, that in many cases the responses were given in collusion with the one who consulted the oracle, for the purpose of deceiving others. For example, let us suppose that Crœsus wished to establish strongly the credibility of the Delphic oracle in the minds of his countrymen, in order to encourage them to enlist in his armies, and to engage in the enterprise which he was contemplating against Cyrus with resolution and confidence; it would have been easy for him to have let the priestess at Delphi know what he was doing on the day when he sent to inquire, and thus himself to have directed her answer. Then, when his messengers returned, he would appeal to the answer as proof of the reality of the inspiration which seemed to furnish it. Alexander the Great certainly did, in this way, act in collusion with the priests at the temple of Jupiter Ammon.

The fact that there have been so many and such successful cases of falsehood and imposture among mankind in respect to revelations from Heaven, is no indication, as some superficially suppose, that no revelation is true, but is, on the other hand, strong evidence to the contrary. The Author of human existence has given no instincts in vain; and the universal tendency of mankind to believe in the supernatural, to look into an unseen world, to seek, and to imagine that they find, revelations from Heaven, and to expect a continuance of existence after this earthly life is over, is the strongest possible natural evidence that there is an unseen world; that man may have true communications with it; that a personal deity reigns, who approves and disapproves of human conduct, and that there is a future state of being. In this point of view, the absurd oracles of Greece, and the universal credence which they obtained, constitute strong evidence that there is somewhere to be found inspiration and prophesy really divine.