The Ancient Science of Honest Prophesy

The Ancient Science of Honest Prophesy


Archaeologist Brady Kiesling explains how Greeks dealt with bribed gods using perhaps the world’s first double-blind experiment.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Athenians, with their wealth, power, vanity, and religious zeal, were difficult neighbors for Megara, a small city-state of Greek farmers. Athens had seized from Megara a prime tract of farmland between Eleusis and Megara. The tract was too far from Athens for private citizens to farm it safely, so to entrap as well as to impoverish and annoy the Megarians, the Athenians gifted the land to their two goddesses, Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore), who presided over the sacred Mysteries at Eleusis. Athens declared the tract to be orgas, land left to grow wild as the exclusive property of the goddesses. Upon hearing the news, Megara killed the messenger: a heinous sin akin to assassinating diplomats today, and this act put both Athens and the gods against them.

By the year 352 BCE, however, Athens was regretting its generosity to the goddesses. Megara was by then diplomatically irrelevant, so why leave good farmland to deer and rabbits simply to spite the neighbors? Quietly, Athenian farmers encroached on the sacred land, but soon more pious Athenians became outraged and intervened. Megara’s chronic plight was a reminder that a city ignores its contracts with the gods at its peril.

Like most theological debates, a solution to this one could not be legitimized without force majeure, e.g. an outside despot with an army, or else a deus ex machina, some unmistakably divine manifestation. In ancient Greece, such divine intervention was available and even affordable. In exchange for prayer, sacrifice, and an offering (on a sliding scale, from a bronze coin to a gold cup to a marble temple), Apollo’s oracle at Delphi would offer reliable guidance on how to keep the gods happy. Apollo gave answers not directly, but through his priestess, whose ecstatic utterances were put into verse by priest/interpreters. But you had to be careful how you asked your question as the ambiguity of Apollo’s answers tended to faithfully reflect the ambiguity of the political landscape:

“Cross the Halys and you will destroy a great empire,” was the answer King Croesus of Lydia received; the empire he destroyed was of course his own.

Indeed, when someone brought home from Delphi too clear and convenient an answer, the losing side might charge that the priestess had been bribed. In the case of the Spartan strongman Cleomenes, who used an oracle from Delphi to depose one of the two Spartan kings, the charge may well have been true.

Having consulted Apollo many times in the past with good but uneven success, the Athenians in 352 BCE conceived a method of divine interrogation so elegant that they carved the relevant decree on a slab of Pentelic marble. The slab, which once stood in the sanctuary of the goddesses at Eleusis, has come down to us broken in four pieces, so we cannot be sure of Apollo’s answer. The oracular method, however, is clear.

The secretary of the Council shall write on two identical pieces of tin. On the first:

“It is preferable and better for the Athenian People that the king-archon rent out the area of the Sacred Orgas … to pay for building the portico and repairing the sanctuary of the Two Goddesses.”

And on the second piece of tin:

“It is preferable and better for the Athenian People to leave the area of the Sacred Orgas … fallow for the Two Goddesses.”

Once the secretary has written, the Chairman of the Presidium shall take the two pieces of tin, roll them up in wool, and put them in a bronze water jug in the presence of the People …. The treasurers of the goddess shall at once bring down a gold and a silver water-jug to the People; the Chairman shall shake the bronze water-jug, take out each piece of tin, and put the first piece of tin in the gold water-jug and the second in the silver one, and tie them shut. The prytany chairman shall seal them with the public seal and any Athenian who wishes can counter-seal them; and when they have been sealed, the treasurers shall take the water-jugs up to the Acropolis.

The People shall elect three men … to go to Delphi and ask the god which writing the Athenians are to follow regarding the Sacred Orgas, that from the gold water-jug or that from the silver one.

When they have come back from the god, they shall bring down the water jugs and read the oracle and the writings on the pieces of tin to the People; and according to whichever of the writings the god ordains it to be preferable and best for the Athenian People, in this way they are to act, so that matters relating to the Two Goddesses shall be handled as piously as possible and never in future shall anything impious happen concerning the Sacred Orgas or the other sacred places in Athens. (Translation adapted from S. Lambert)

I find it highly impressive that the Athenians aspired to a scientific approach to the divine, stripping out human factors when ascertaining the will of the gods. Apollo would know what answer each water jug contained. His handlers, however, should be involved in the oracular process as little as possible.

We in the modern age have also figured out, long after the ancient Athenians did, that our inherent biases alter both our human interactions and our interpretation of them. Therefore, we hope that medical trials and the like will also be “double-blind,” with key facts (e.g. drug or placebo) unknown both to the observer and the subject.

There is also a self-protective side to scientific rigor. By asking in this binary way, Athens eliminated any risk that Apollo might volunteer that what Demeter really wanted was that they give this stolen land back to the Megarians. If Apollo happened to be dozing or imaginary, the odds of a good answer were still 50-50. And the profarming lobby could believe their odds were better than even: Greek gods, or at least their earthly sanctuaries, were major property owners, renting out land and lending money at interest. Apollo would be inclined to support his divine cousins’ revenue streams. But if he opted instead to leave the land fallow, the ancient Athenians, like their gods, recognized there were environmental as well as political and religious benefits from leaving some land wild. Two obvious results were watershed protection and a steady supply of game animals for upper-class hunters. Only with divine support could such tracts be safe from the covetous eyes of farmers and herders.

The will of the gods is a tricky concept, but society may well benefit when the gods successfully legitimize a contentious decision. We Americans cannot agree on which gods and oracles to trust on any important subject. Instead, we look for political legitimacy in the majority vote of nine respectable-looking judges appointed for life. We are increasingly suspicious of the results; alas, increasingly convinced like the ancient Greeks that unwashed thumbs were leaving fingerprints on the scales. Perhaps it is time to experiment as the ancient Athenians did in 352 BCE and trust the Supreme Court simply to tell us whether to follow the guidance in the golden pitcher or the silver one.

25 Years of Total Aliveness

Brady Kiesling’s first piece for S+H was “Being Honorable,” his account of publicly resigning as chief of the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy in Athens to protest the war in Iraq. As he wrote bluntly, “Lying to support an unjust cause made me sick.” Still based in Athens, he has written books on diplomacy and Greek terrorism and is the creator of the app ToposText, a free digital library of ancient texts mapped to the places and people they mention.

Not yet part of the Spirituality+Health community? Celebrate 25 years of S+H by subscribing here.

The Ancient Science of Honest Prophesy

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