Today, historian Rob Zaretsky travels back to the future at Delphi.
The University of Houston presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
They were running wildly around, as if their
hair was on fire. The nation was in danger, yet the nature of the
threat was unclear. Accounts conflicted; the "chatter" was garbled;
leaders argued over strategies.
Perhaps this sounds familiar: it certainly would to an ancient Greek.
This was the situation in Athens in 480 BCE, on the eve of the Persian
invasion. The Greeks were at loggerheads: how to defend themselves
against the approaching armies of Xerxes? For an answer, they turned
to a traditional source of intelligence: the oracle at Delphi.
Delphi boasted a temple to Apollo, home of the Pythia, a priestess who
offered counsel to supplicants seeking guidance. Her answers most often
were, well, oracular: enigmatic and elusive. There were both physical
and political reasons for her ambiguity.
Ancient historians, like Plutarch, report that fumes rising from the ground
enveloped the Pythia, who offered her answer in a trance-like, sometimes
frenzied state. In the 1990s, a team of scientists discovered an underground
spring running below Delphi. It carried important traces of ethylene, a
gas that smells slightly sweet -- matching Plutarch's description of the
fumes as heavily perfumed -- and puts the user in states swinging from the
beatific to bizarre.
This brings us back to 480 BCE. Did the Greeks allow themselves to be guided
by a glue sniffer? Not at all. Consider both her answer to the supplicants
and their response. The oracle announced: "All shall be taken by the enemy," but added:
"A wall of wood which alone shall survive the foe ... shall serve you and your children ... Turn your back in retreat; on another day you shall face them."
Back in Athens, there was a welter of interpretations. Many thought the Pythia
meant the thorn bushes encircling the Acropolis would save the city. An outspoken
Athenian, Themistocles, disagreed: the wooden wall meant Athen's naval fleet.
The city's survival lay not in the city, but in the ingenuity of its people:
Athens at sea, in its hundreds of triremes, alone could defeat Xerxes. A few
months later, Themistocles' interpretation was borne out: Athens defeated the
Persian fleet off the coast of Salamis.
Athens survived long enough to be pestered, later in the century, by the philosopher
Socrates. Delphi famously declared that Socrates was the wisest of all men.
Convinced the oracle was wrong, Socrates tried to find a wiser man. But when
he questioned his fellow Athenians, they revealed themselves to be wise only
in their own fields. Beyond that they were ignorant. This ignorance, however,
was not blissful, but tragic: these men did not know that they did not know.
Socrates concluded he was indeed the wisest man, if only because he knew he was
ignorant. Then as now, this is the cardinal rule of intelligence analysis: we
take from it what we bring to it: our fears and hopes, selfish biases and selfless
concerns, our insight and blindness.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Herodotus, The History/Heroditus. trans. David Grene
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987),
M. Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)
J. R. Hale, J. Zeilinga de Boer, J. P. Chanton and H. A. Spiller, Questioning the Delphic Oracle.
Scientific American, September 2003. See also, Episode 1697.
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston
Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He
is the author of Nīmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in
the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and
Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (
Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians.
(Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag.
(Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn
State 2001). With John Scott, he is co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding. To be published
by Yale University Press in 2007.
View of the temple ruins at Delphi and the valley beyond
(both images courtesy of Wikipedia)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.