REVISITING DELPHI

Julia Kindt

CUP (2016) h/b 215pp £64.99 (ISBN 9781107151574)

This very scholarly tome forms part of the Cambridge Classical Studies series. K. completed her doctoral thesis on Delphi and its prophecies and here she has extended her research and reflections on the topic. The book comprises five main chapters focusing on different written sources and aspects of the oracle, each of which could be read independently, and a comprehensive introduction and conclusion. Copious footnotes are positioned helpfully at the bottom of each page; the bibliography is very extensive and is followed by a useful index. An appendix deals in detail with Plutarch’s dialogue, The E at Delphi. Throughout K. directly quotes many passages of Greek, but always provides an English translation.

K. explains that her purpose is not ‘to separate fact from fiction’, but rather to examine how certain authors told Delphic oracle stories within their work and what this can teach us about religious views and how they are linked to narratives. Herodotus provides her first examples; K. notes that he included 57 oracle stories within his work. She focuses in particular on the Croesus stories and that of the foundation of Cyrene and points out how numerous characters misunderstand oracles. She concludes that Herodotus preserved ‘the voice of the oracle as an authoritative voice… which complements the authoritative voice of the historian’ and that it is ‘through narrative and storytelling … that oracles divulge their meaning.’ The following chapter deals with Euripides, and is a very detailed account of Ion, a play which is centred on the Delphic oracle. K. sees the Ion as an ironic reading of the divine and its impact on humanity.

Plato’s Apology provides the source for K.’s next investigation. She considers in detail Socrates’ claim that his life of enquiry had been motivated by Chaerophon’s visit to the oracle at Delphi and the response that ‘no one was wiser than Socrates’. She points out that ‘there is no contradiction … between Socratic reason and divine revelation’ and that the systematic interpretation of oracles shows ‘ancient Greek religion embracing rational human reasoning’.

Moving forward into Roman times, K. turns to Pausanias and widens her scope to consider stories of objects such as that involving the athlete Theagenes of Thasos and a bronze statue. She also reflects on other instances where statues apparently had supernatural powers or were indicted for crimes. Although oracular pronouncements are involved, they are less central to her arguments here. Her final case study start with a fragment preserved by Athenaeus in which Parmeniscus finally discovers an oracle’s meaning when he laughs at a very primitive wooden statue of Leto. K. develops this into a complex discourse on ‘Theoria and the religious gaze’.

K. concludes her volume with a consideration of the enigmatic mode, explaining that ‘enigmatic prophecies negotiate, first and foremost, the ontological plane between the human and the divine spheres.’ Oracle stories are told to make sense of the world and typically bring a finite sense of closure from an uncertain beginning.

This book is intended for the specialist reader and for those who wish to think more deeply about the place of religion in ancient Greek society. Some parts are readily accessible, others more recondite. It is certainly a volume to which one could return and find stimulation for further ideas.

Marion Gibbs

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