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Old December 30th, 2014, 12:17 PM   #1

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Delphic Errors


The Pythia of Delphi was renowned for her prophecies, often given in an ambiguous way that allowed them to be accurate no matter what the political outcome. Herodotus records a number of the consultations made to her, including a couple that involved the pythia being bribed to give prearranged answers;

The first was in 510 BC when the pythia was bribed by Clisthenes, an enemy of Hippias of Athens, to give all enquiries that came from Sparta, regardless of the subject matter, the same answer - it is your duty to liberate Athens. This deception was found out only after the Spartans had followed the pythia's orders and deposed Hippias in the same year.

The second was in 491 BC when the pythia Perialla was bribed by Cleomenes of Sparta to give an answer that would depose his rival Demaratus. She was found out and turned out of her position (although no physical punishment is recorded).

However Herodotus also lists one prophecy that seems to have been proved wrong. In 518 BC Acresilaus, the exiled king of Cyrene, asked the oracle if he would regain his kingdom. He was told yes, and that he would be followed by eight generations - four kings named Battus, and four named Acresilaus. True to the oracle's pronouncement, Acresilaus did regain his kingdom, and was succeeded by his son Battus and grandson, another Acresilaus, whose heir was his only son Prince Battus. Herodotus was writing at this time, so presumably he felt the oracle's prophecy was destined to be shown correct. However this younger Acresilaus was murdered in 440 BC (after Herodotus wrote his History), along with Prince Battus, thus ending the dynasty. The oracle had got it very wrong.

Are there any other records of the oracle of Delphi getting it wrong?
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Old January 9th, 2017, 01:54 PM   #2

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According to Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars, the emperor Nero consulted the Pythia on the fate of his reign. He was told to "look out for the seventy-third year", which Nero took to mean that he would live to be 73. But Suetonius records that it was actually fulfilled by Galba who rebelled against Nero and became emperor in his seventy-third year.

However, in Suetonius' account of the emperor Galba, he says that he was born in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus, which was in 3 BC. Therefore when Galba revolted against Nero in 68 AD he was only 70, not 73 as Suetonius tries to convince his readers that he was.

So is this a Delphic prophecy that actually failed, but for which others put a spin on events to make it look accurate?
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Old January 9th, 2017, 10:38 PM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Moros View Post
Are there any other records of the oracle of Delphi getting it wrong?

How about some of the oracular advice received by Julian about his plan to subdue the Persians?

I found this article useful:

Julian and the Last Oracle at Delphi.
Timothy E. Gregory
p.365


taken together with the oracles on the Persian campaign (which led Julian to his death) and those on the health of the comes Julian, these last oracles certainly inspired the observation that the "water is not prophetic but laughable."
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Old January 10th, 2017, 01:21 AM   #4
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Pausanias recounts the following three occurrences:

Epanomindas was warned by the oracle to beware of Pelagus (sea), which is why he avoided ships and sailing. But he died at the Battle of Mantinea, in the middle of the Peloponnese, about as far from the sea that you could get in Classical Greece. Luckily for the oracle, the local forest was also called Pelagus, or so it was claimed...

Athenians were told to colonize Sicily, which they tried disastrously by attacking Syracuse, but the oracle obviously meant the small hill in Attica named Sicily...

Hannibal was told that after his death, he would be buried in a city of Libyssa. He took this to mean that he would win against the Romans and return to Libya to be buried there. Instead, he died in a Bithynian town of Libyssa. This is not really a failure on the oracle's part, though.

Last edited by Whyte; January 10th, 2017 at 01:23 AM.
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Old January 10th, 2017, 09:16 PM   #5
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^^ These are not really failures of the oracle.
"Avoid Pelagus" does not guarantee good fortune if Pelagus is avoided; just that disaster is guaranteed if Pelagus is not avoided.
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Old January 11th, 2017, 12:45 AM   #6
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^^ These are not really failures of the oracle.
"Avoid Pelagus" does not guarantee good fortune if Pelagus is avoided; just that disaster is guaranteed if Pelagus is not avoided.
I took it more as an example of spin-doctoring the failed oracle. For instance, have we any other statements that there actually WAS a hill called Sicily in Attica? Or that the forest near Mantinea actually was called Pelagus (sea), which is a darned odd name for a forest. Also, there is the fact that many of these examples come to us centuries after the events occurred. Some might be literary embellishments (like Hannibal).

As usual for soothsayers, the oracle was seldom clear enough, and you could always try to make the answer fit the events or the desires of the men in charge. Like the famous answer of wooden walls saving Athens meaning ships, rather than the actual wooden walls of Acropolis. Or to Croesus's case that if he should attack the nascent Persia, a great kingdom would fall. Yeah, it was his own, rather than Persia. But had he won, then the oracle 'obviously' meant Persia. That is some grade A bovine excrement right there. :P

Last edited by Whyte; January 11th, 2017 at 12:48 AM.
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