Delphic Oracles as Oral Performances: Authenticity and Historical Evidence

Published in Classical Antiquity 16.2 (1997) 309–43

While no one would dispute that Delphi was the premier oracular site in archaic and classical Greece, as Croesus’ test of the oracles in Herodotus’ Histories implies, there remains among historians and literary scholars a certain unease about how to interpret the corpus of Delphic oracles. The modern historian who cannot account for the miraculous elements in Delphic stories often falls back on notions of political manipulation and blind faith. Or he simply dismisses these stories because they seem to lack any documentary evidence, that is, they appear as unreliable evidence for the dates and details of particular consultations and the social crises these consultations were meant to address. To the literary historian, Delphic tales appear to fall into the amorphous category of folklore, or, if an oracle is in hexameter, it appears to be a paltry descendent of Homer. And, whether the oracle is in verse or not, these tales, to the extent they are regarded as monotonous and repetitive moralizing, are not considered a genre, a status which might compel inquiry, and appear unworthy of literary exegesis. Thus, the workings of Delphi, its function and role in the political and religious lives of individuals and cities, remain unexplored because oracular tales have slipped through the nets of the historian and literary scholar alike.