Mathematics Pre-May Seminar:
Delphi and the Oracle
7 February 2011
Surviving image of Pythia from Delphi
Famous statements of the Oracle: Croesus
• In 560 BC Croesus of Lydia consulted all the famous oracles as to what he was
doing on an appointed day. According to Herodotus the oracle proclaimed
– I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea; I understand the speech of
the dumb and hear the voiceless. The smell has come to my sense of a hard shelled tortoise
boiling and bubbling with a lamb's flesh in a bronze pot: the cauldron underneath it is of
bronze, and bronze is the lid.
• Delphi was declared the winner, Croesus asked if he would have a long reign. He
– Nay, when a mule becometh king of Medes, flee, soft-soled Lydian, by pebbly Hermus, and
stay not, nor feel shame to be a coward.
• Croesus thought it impossible that a mule should be king of the Medes and so
asked advice about attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus Croesus was
– After crossing the Halys, Croesus will destroy a great empire.
• Croesus was pleased by the response and attacked the Persians. The defeat of
Croesus ensured that he had destroyed his own empire. He apparently forgot
that Cyrus, the victor was in fact half Mede (by his mother), half Persian (by his
father) and therefore could be considered a mule.
Famous statements of the Oracle: Persian Invasion
• In 480 BC, when Xerxes the son of Darius of Persia, returned to finish
the job of conquering the Greeks in which his father had failed, the
Athenians consulted the oracle. They were told
– Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat. They shiver with dread. The
black blood drips from the highest rooftops. They have seen the necessity of evil.
Get out, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe.
• It was unambiguous. When persuaded to seek advice a second time the
oracle gave a way for the Athenians to escape their doom. Athena had
approached her father for help for her city. Zeus said that he would
– a wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children.
• The oracle again advised Athenians to flee
– Await not in quiet the coming of the horses, the marching feet, the armed host
upon the land. Slip away. Turn your back. You will meet in battle anyway. Oh
holy Battle of Salamis, you will be the death of many a woman's son between the
seedtime and the harvest of the grain.
Delphic Sybil on
Sistina in the
Last Judgment, Duomo, Firenze