Paging the oracle: interpretation, identity and performance in Herodotus’ History

Barker, Elton (2006). Paging the oracle: interpretation, identity and performance in Herodotus’ History. Greece & Rome, 53(1) pp. 1–28.



Herodotus begins his enquiry (‘historia’) into why Greeks and Persians came into conflict with the figure of Croesus, ‘the first man whom we know enslaved Greeks’ – the archetypal eastern despot. In the subsequent narrative of his reign, Herodotus explores the reasons behind Croesus’s actions, and the consequences following on from them, through a series of consultations that Croesus seeks with the Delphic oracle, which he tries to enlist in support of his imperial project. This paper argues that Herodotus frames these consultations in such a way that not only challenges the king’s power but also puts the oracle’s famed ambiguity to service in a way that obstructs complacent reading of his narrative.
From the beginning of Herodotus’ narrative, the oracle is represented as a key site in and over which the competing claims of knowledge and power are played out. Croesus courts the oracle with a display of riches beyond measure, but fails to interpret correctly its responses, which raises several important issues. First, it shows that the oracle cannot be put at the personal service of a powerful individual, who, by showering the god with gifts, had expected a simple transaction of knowledge. Second, it undermines the power of that individual, whose downfall is expressly precipitated by virtue of having got the oracle wrong. Third, it raises the possibility that the reason for the failure of interpretation is institutional: because Croesus is solely responsible for posing the question and interpreting the response, the likelihood of him getting it wrong is greatly increased.
Herodotus not only emphasises the importance of working out the oracle, but also indicates the cultural context in which correct interpretations may be made. Throughout the narrative, kings fall because they fail to interpret divine signs correctly or because special advisors, out of deference, tell their masters what they want to hear. In contrast, different Greek communities are presented as having the possibility at least of getting interpretation right precisely because difference is allowed, even promoted, within the institutional polis framework. Moreover, by leading its readers through a process of interpreting the oracle Herodotus’s narrative presents itself as an alternative venue for political decision-making: thus they may not only feel superior to the king, whose attempts to exert control over his fate demonstrably fail; they may also perform that superiority by approaching the material with a self-reflexive, critical attitude that the king (inevitably) lacks. In this way, readers not only learn about the limits of authority and what it means to be free, but in doing so enact their difference as an independent, free-thinking agents.

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