The Delphic Oracle: The Tension Between Speech, Inscription, and Space

Panagiotopoulou, Dorette (Theodosia) (2024). The Delphic Oracle: The Tension Between Speech, Inscription, and Space. PhD thesis The Open University.



The main objective of the thesis focuses on investigating how the Delphic Oracle, in its capacity as both a physical site and an oracular institution, forms a significant field of study for analysing the tension between speech, inscription, and space. The starting point of this investigation lies in the crucial role of the Delphic sanctuary in ancient Greek history, and it can be understood as one of the most intense manifestations of the politics of sacred space. It operated as a Panhellenic and international centre, constituting an ideal location-network of communication that united geographical borders through political interactions among various city-states in the ancient world. Delphi’s central political and geographic position, along with the importance of its oracle, is attributed to its mythological, political, and moral significance, as well as its enduring manifestation over time in space.
Derrida’s deconstructive method, as articulated in his book "Of Grammatology," serves as an instrument for analysing the tension between speech, inscription, and space in the Oracle at Delphi. This exploration reveals that the opposition between speech and writing is not as clear-cut as commonly perceived. Derrida notes that prevailing perception of the relationships between speech and writing has been captive to the logocentric and Eurocentric metaphysics. Logocentrism, or phonocentrism, presents the voice as an almost autonomous spiritual category that promotes presence. Derrida argues that in the history of metaphysics, writing has been systematically debased and repressed outside "full" speech. The exploration includes an analysis of the shift from orality to literacy and leads to understanding where writing "cuts into" speech, elucidated through the concepts of arche-writing, trace, and différance. It is through the difference between speech and writing that we recognise their relationship; they are interrelated precisely because of their difference. Each stands in opposition to the other, yet neither exists without the other.
Examining the nature of the oracular utterance and its relationship with divination, a fundamental aspect of Greek religion, involves an analysis of Plutarch’s "Pythian Dialogues." These dialogues, being among the most crucial literary sources concerning the Delphic oracle, reflect Plutarch’s interest in reconciling philosophical teachings with the principles of Delphic theology. Plutarch’s treatise "On the Oracles of the Pythia" addresses prophetic inspiration and the progressive simplification of oracular language from poetry to prose, while functioning as an essential guide to the architectural landscape of Delphi.
The thesis seeks to examine the ongoing evolution of "sensible" writing, "in space," its disposition, in what may literally be called its "geography" in the Delphic sanctuary. The cultural graphology arising from the unearthing of a multitude of inscriptions in the archaeological site of Delphi, engraved on various mediums, supports, and surfaces – steles, statue bases, retaining walls, treasuries, large votive monuments, temple of Apollo – reflects the evolving political and social landscape of Greek civic life. The inquiry extends to the visual aspect of inscription, starting with Lyotard’s observation, that writing, unlike spoken language, institutes a dimension of visibility and spatiality.
The concluding chapter of the thesis "Periegesis as Inscription: Delphi Remains" underlines that writing is not simply located in space. Rather, it is the production of space. This inquiry pertains to the concept of space as inscription, or architecture as a form of writing. There is no space before the writing that appears to go on within it. Consequently, as Wigley notes, Derrida refers to writing as the possibility of inscriptions in general, not befalling an already constituted space as a contingent accident but producing the spatiality of space. This is exemplified by the architectural space of the sanctuary, elucidating that the production of space is an effect of ongoing inscriptions of sculptural and spatial dedications (treasuries), often commemorating military victories, and reflecting the tectonic power shifts in ancient Mediterranean history, spanning politics and war, and exerting a constant influence on the ancient world.

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