Problematic oracles

Problematic oracles
by Sannion

Over the years I’ve received and given to others what I’ve come to think of as “problematic” oracles. Basically, these are messages that don’t conform to the reality of a given situation. They are, in other words, false.

Now, sometimes we’re a little premature in judging them as such. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had someone say that an oracle didn’t apply to their situation or made no sense to them whatsoever, only to hear back from them in a couple months or a year that everything ended up exactly as predicted. Other times we think it’s pretty clear what a message means, and really how could it mean anything else? Only to discover later on that it had actually been talking about something else entirely. And, sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it and try my best to ensure that it doesn’t happen, an oracle can come out garbled. I put too much emphasis on one part while ignoring the truly relevant material; I mishear something; I put it in such a way that it confuses the person; or maybe wires get crossed and I just have a bad night. It happens to everyone in this business at one time or another, no matter how careful we try to be.

But what about when none of this applies and the oracle is still wrong?

Can the gods ever be mistaken?

Can they lie?

Plenty of folks with philosophical inclinations will tell you straight up, “No. Never. It’s just not possible. The gods are all wise and all powerful and more to the point they are perfect and good and entirely different from us foolish, frail mortals.”

The only one of these I really agree with is the last point. The gods are, indeed, very different from us but all the rest is just wishful thinking on our part. Just because the human mind can conceive of something like a perfect, omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity doesn’t mean that you’ll ever find such a thing in reality. Just look at nature, which the philosophers will often tell you is supposed to be a reflection of divinity or a god in its own right. Can anything be more harsh, indifferent and prone to making horrible mistakes? Why does the tortoise lay a hundred eggs when only a couple will live long enough to reach maturity? Why are most planets incapable of sustaining life? Why does the platypus or Tom Cruise exist? Anyone who has pondered such questions for long must eventually come to the conclusion that philosophers aren’t half as wise as they think themselves.

I find the theories of the ancient myth-tellers to be far more reasonable. There we find a multitude of gods with different interests, powers and opinions. Not only can they disagree with each other, but they often quarrel and oppose the efforts of their fellows. Further, none of them is all-knowing or all-powerful. Wiser and stronger than us, certainly. Wiser and stronger even than some of the other gods; that, too, makes sense. But when you start making them omni- this and omni- that you run into patently absurd paradoxes, especially if you maintain any pretense of morality among them.

So, what has this to do with oracles? Well, I think it offers a couple valuable solutions for the problematic ones.

For instance, a god can simply be wrong. Perhaps they did not see far enough. Perhaps the situation changed after they made their proclamation. This, alone, could take multiple courses of action. Another
god may have intervened on behalf of the person, thwarting what the other had willed or seen; alternately, the oracle could have been about the likeliest course of action until the person made certain choices which opened up other possibilities.

Although I believe in Fate I reject the notion of predestination. First, I think it renders our lives meaningless, reducing us to the status of mindless automata. So, even if it’s true – and if it’s true then it makes no difference what I believe – I reject it because such a notion is incompatible with true virtue and goodness.

Secondly, it just doesn’t appear to be the way things work. I could go on about this at length, and probably should, but I figure that’s best reserved for another occasion. Instead I’ll share my own view about Fate. Fate, to me, is like a busy one-way street. Once you turn onto it you’re pretty much going to end up following it until you reach your destination or turn off somewhere else. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from opting not to follow that path. You can abruptly stop your car and refuse to budge. You can turn around and go against the flow of traffic, weaving in and out of oncoming vehicles until one of them smashes into you. Or you can get out of the car and run screaming into the woods by the side of the highway. Granted, all these are difficult, dangerous and undesirable choices – but it’s still within your power to make them. So, all these could account for those problematic oracles. And if predestination is true, what’s the point in getting an oracle at all? That makes it a cruel joke, a god going “Neener neener boo boo. Here’s what’s gonna happen and you can’t do nothing about it.”

But there’s also another option, namely that gods can lie. They do it amongst themselves all the time in myth, and they’ve done it to us plenty of times before. My favorite instance of this – which is quite relevant to our discussion – took place before the start of the Persian War. At the time Persia had been making some aggressive noise. They’d annexed a number of the Greek cities in Asia Minor. They’d been instigating inter-communal conflicts among the poleis in the Greek mainland. They’d sent ambassadors with their demands. And they’d done a pretty good job of swallowing up the rest of the ancient world, especially in the Middle East. But even with their intent made so clear, the Greeks – and especially the Athenians – were uncertain of how to proceed. Some thought they’d never reach this far and posed no serious threat anyway, being a bunch of skirt-wearing, mother-loving barbarian wussies. Others thought they could be bought off or alliances could be made with them, which would help eliminate their more annoying neighbors. There were as many opinions as there were people in the agora and as the matter continued to be hotly debated the Persians made their slow progress through Asia. Eventually someone got it in their head to ask the gods what they should do, so they sent some representatives to consult the Pythia at Delphi. Horrified the representatives returned to Athens, saying, “Woe to the sons of Athens, all is lost. You shall be utterly defeated, the land of your ancestors taken from you and the holy temples of the gods burned to the ground. Run! Flee like the weaklings you are. Your only hope is to get as far away from here as possible, as fast as you can. Don’t even look back; the sight will haunt you the rest of your days.”

I’m paraphrasing as anyone who has read their Herodotos knows, of course, but that was the gist of Apollon’s message to the Athenians. And it completely pissed them off. “The god thinks so little of us? Well fuck him, safe up there on Parnassos! If we’re destined to die, we’ll go down on our feet, fighting to the last, taking as many of the rag-heads with us as possible.”

And, well, that’s pretty much what they did. The Athenians put aside their long-standing hatred of the Spartans and presented a unified front against the Persians. They fought them by land and by sea. It was a long and bitter war, and countless score perished as a result. At one point the Persians even managed to push through and put the Athenian Acropolis to the torch, burning many of the city’s oldest and most important temples. But the Greeks fought back and eventually drove the invader out of the land. Then they rebuilt, making the temples – the Parthenon in particular – bigger and better than they had been previously. They had been tested in the crucible and emerged from the flames strong and pure and wise. This was the time of Greece’s Golden Age, when she excelled in the arts and sciences and wielded great power and wealth. All because Apollon lied to them.

Imagine if the representatives had come back with a different message from the Pythia. “The god says everything’s going to be fine. The Persians aren’t going to set up residence here. In fact we’re about to see a time of great prosperity and success. Yay us!” How do you think they would have responded to the threat then? Apollon had to deceive them in order to goad them into action, show them the thing they feared and despised most so that they would fight all the harder to ensure it didn’t happen.

So I don’t have a problem with the fact that the gods can lie to us, even when it’s motivated by less benign intentions than those of kind-hearted Apollon. There are gods and spirits out there who really don’t have our best interests in mind. Of course, Dionysos isn’t one of them, but I wouldn’t put it past him to lie if he felt it was necessary. He’s also pretty good at speaking the truth in a way that’s easily misunderstood, as Euripides made abundantly clear in The Bakchai. This is where our rationality must come into play.

We should never just accept the words of an oracle at face-value. The oracle is but a first step, an outline, an invitation, a challenge. Of course, we shouldn’t overthink the oracle, either. I’ve known folks who initially understood it but weren’t happy with the results and so kept twisting it to make it say what they wanted to or kept looking for a deeper meaning for so long that it just became a string of empty syllables. When they came back, wanting more, the god was reluctant to give it to them, and I certainly don’t blame him.

What are you going to actually do with the information that’s been given to you? That’s the important question. That’s what it always comes back to.