Culture Magazine

The Vital Mysticism of Oracles

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.


Predictions are vital. Since the dawn of civilization humans have lived in anticipation of the future, demanding forecasts by whatever methods available. Oracles, prophets, seers, soothsayers, diviners, astrologers, rune casters, palm readers, fortune tellers, psychics, and economists have maintained employment through an urgent requirement, a desperate need, to know what is coming next. I myself have years of experience in predictive analysis in a professional context, and I have foreseen that it is in my own financial interest to continue to develop my forecasting knowledge and abilities. For me this means gathering massive amount of data, massaging it into readable information, interpreting its causal significance and extrapolating into the future what I find in the record of the past. For the predictioneers who lived before the scientific revolution, data analysis was supported by divine or mystical assistance. The oracles at Delphi and Pachacamac, the use of astrology, and the eminent Nostradamus all benefited from the mysteriousness of their methods and premonitions.

In ancient Greece the center of the ancient world was Delphi, near the Gulf of Corinth, nestled among the southwestern rocky slopes of Mount Parnassus, a view of the valley of Phocis below. For centuries people from all over Greece, Egypt, Rome, and Lydia (located in modern Turkey), traveled to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in order to seek out the prophecies of the Oracle, an older woman called the Pythia, a medium who acted as mouthpiece for the Greek God of light and prophecy. The Pythia’s chambers were deep down in the bowels of the temple complex, where she would sit upon a tripod stool, her seat straddled over a crack in the earth, a fault from which sweet smelling vapors would waft up, to be inhaled by the Pythia, sending her into a precognitive trance, allowing her to foretell the future for her many petitioners. Her enigmatic ramblings were interpreted by oracular priests, men trained to decipher the divinations of the Pythia into the more coherent, and consumer friendly, insights.

The Delphic Oracle was consulted before virtually all major decisions, personal or public, including whether to engage in warfare. The Lydian King Creosus famously asked the Oracle if he should attack the Persians, for which the Pythia foretold that a great Kingdom would fall if he crossed the Halys River into Persia. King Creosus thought that this was a premonition of good portend, and upon marching his army into Persia in 547 B.C. he was fought to a standstill by the Persian King Cyrus, who then decimated the Lydian army while they retreated. King Creosus was angry at the Pythia for what he saw as a misleading forecast, but she reminded him that he had not asked which kingdom would fall. The Delphic Oracle was held in high esteem as a powerful divinatory force, and was likely as successful as it was for so long through such vague and general pronouncements. In this case, the Pythia gave a prediction that had at least a two-thirds chance of succeeding, because if Creosus crossed the Halys River either he would prevail, Cyrus would prevail, or there would be a draw between the two. The first two options entail a correct prediction for the Oracle, and this is fairly good odds (Hale).

Predictive success is helpful for credibility, credibility is helpful for reputation, and reputation is helpful for attracting clients, so it may have been wise policy for the Delphic Oracle to avoid forecasting specifics whenever possible. In Plato’s Apology Socrates defends himself against the indictment of impiety and corruption of the youth by suggesting that these were trumped up charges, an accusation inspired by the irritation and hostility he had engendered around Athens with his method of philosophically questioning the knowledge of others. Socrates claimed that he was inspired to his behavior because he was honoring the Delphic Oracle for a proclamation it had made, a declaration that no man was wiser than Socrates, at a time when the philosopher was still only a young man of 30. Socrates knew he was not wise, but he also knew that the oracle was speaking for Apollo, who would not lie. This made Socrates recognize that his superior wisdom must come from knowing that he was not wise, while those who saw themselves as wise were foolishly mistaken in this regard. From there on out Socrates spent his life dedicated to venerating the Delphic Oracle as he saw it, and went about critically questioning his fellow prominent Athenians about their own knowledge, much to their apparent chagrin. Socrates was not successful in his legal defense, and was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning, but his defense does suggest that the oracle of Delphi may have been responsible for dramatically influencing the life of one of the greatest contributors to Western civilization and thought.

In 1995, archaeologists discovered evidence of ethylene in the spring water at Delphi, a sweet smelling and intoxicating gas that in the past was used as an anesthesia, and which is twice as potent as nitrous oxide. This discovery supports the notion that the Pythia’s trance may truly have been ethylene intoxication, which can induce hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and even violent convulsions (Hale). This certainly would have given the Pythia a sense of mystical power, faith in her premonitions, and an uninhibited delivery style, all creating an air of confidence and credibility. Plus, the spectacle of the Pythia’s trance likely contributed to the oracle’s legend, reputation, and attraction, as well it would have masked her ambiguous and cryptic statements, justifying their obscurity, and helping maintain the credibility of the oracle as a supernatural force. Authority is often taken as an indicator of truth and credibility, and the authority of Apollo at Delphi may have easier to impress upon petitioners with an authentic and dramatic display from the Pythia.

Pachacamac was an oracle site in the Incan Empire, close to present day Lima. Closely resembling the Delphic Oracle in its reputation and status, Pachacamac was a temple complex devoted to worship of the God of the same name with people travelling from all around the Andes region to learn about their destinies. The oracle was in operation until the arrival of Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish Conquistadors, and its priests fell out favor with the captive Incan chief Atahualpa who was angered at three recent incorrect predictions. The priests of Pachacamac required that petitioners fast for several days, and sometimes even weeks, before they could enter and discover what their future had in store. (Allan 47-50). The secret to the success of Pachacamac may have been related to the altered state of consciousness induced by the fasting, which likely rendered the experience more numinous than it would otherwise have been. This is in contrast to Delphi, where the Pythia may have underwent the altered state of consciousness through intoxication, but both methods would work toward the same end of perpetuating the mystique of these ancient oracles. These were such similar divinatory systems, but constructed in complete isolation from each other in separate continents.

The precursors to astrology originated in ancient Babylon when the Chaldeans mapped out the annual cycle of the Sun’s trek across the sky, a path called the ecliptic. When Alexander the Great conquered Babylon in 330 B.C. (Allan 131-132), astrology as we know it emerged through the synthesis of Babylonian and Hellenic culture. This is when the 12 signs of the Zodiac were established, symbolic shapes that correspond to star constellations forming a ring along the ecliptic, such that each month’s sign represents the constellation of stars that the Sun rises into at daybreak. Under this system of divination, people’s personalities and destinies are believed to be influenced by the sign of the Zodiac they are born under, and the changing positions of the other heavenly bodies against this backdrop of the constellations provides additional insight and nuance for the diviner. The movements of the moon, planets, and comets contribute along with the Zodiac to make complex and unique horoscopes.

Astrology, in one form or another, was common during the Middle Ages in the Far East, Persia, Arabia, Northern Africa, and Byzantium, but it was not until the Renaissance in the 12th and 13th centuries that horoscopes became popular in Western Europe. Before the Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, consulting the stars in order to construct elucidating horoscopes was considered a precise, mathematical, and scientific was to predict the future. Every royal court, and even the papal courts, consulted astrologers, and there were notable stargazers who looked at the stars for both astronomical reasons as well as horoscopy. For example, Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer who took the most precise measurements of the planetary movements available before the telescope, which he used to construct horoscopes for wealthy patrons, but which also served as data from which the German astronomer Johannes Kepler derived his laws of planetary motion, a new model heliocentric and Copernican model of the Solar System (Ruiz). An interesting historical twist when the increase in precision as a quest for predictive success in astrology contributes to its own demise as a science. The Enlightenment brought the rise of astronomy and the discovery that the Sun was center of the Solar System, and this turned astrology into the perennial pseudo-science.

The Italian Renaissance astrologer Luca Gaurico correctly predicted the fall of a tyrant and the rise of a Pope. The latter was a forecast that won him the title of Bishop in the Catholic Church. Gaurico was a favorite of Catherine de Medici, and she brought him along with her to France when she married King Henry II. Unfortunately, he foretold that King Henry II would have a long life, but soon after the King perished from a jousting wound; an amazing predictive failure (Ruiz). An extraordinary predictive success came from the astrologer Andreas de San Martin, who set out with Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan on the first circumnavigation of the globe. When the five ships of the small Armada de Molucca were making their way around the tip of South America, via the namesake Straits of Magellan, they had to stop and wait for a missing ship, San Antonio. At the request of Magellan, San Martin used astrological charts to determine that the ship’s crew had mutinied and headed back to Europe, a divination that was later confirmed to be true (Allan 137). It is useful to point out that San Martin was originally stationed aboard San Antonio before being reassigned to another ship, so he may have had more insight available to him than astrological charts alone (Allan 131-137). Gaurico and San Martin present fascinating anecdotes of predictor success, but these are hardly enough to demonstrate scientific validity, and a consistent record of forecaster accuracy has not been forthcoming for astrology.

Perhaps the most famous astrologer is Nostradamus, although his foresight was based on more than stargazing alone. He was born in early 16th century France, and was also a favorite of Catherine de Medici, who had him create horoscopes for her children. Nostradamus was a famous seer in his day, and in modern times his fame has elevated him to the cult status of master prophet. He is most known for his 942 quatrains, each a separate four line prediction of the future, premonitions that he was savvy enough to scribe into vague cryptic passages without any dates. Unlike Gaurico’s miss on Henry II though, Nostradamus published a quatrain that seems to have foretold the King’s fate remarkably well, at least according to the hindsight of some. Henry II suffered in agony before he died, from a lance wound behind his eye after the weapon had pierced his armored faceplate during a joust. The ominous prophecy follows: “The young lion will overcome the old/On the field of battle in single combat/He will put out his eyes in a golden cage/Two wounds one, then to die a cruel death.”

Many of Nostradamus’ quatrains have been retrospectively cited as correct predictions of dramatic historical events, especially those surrounding World War II. One very popular premonition is believed to indicate the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany: “In the place very near not far from Venus/The two greatest ones of Asia and of Africa/From the Rhine and Hister they will be said to have come/Cries, tears at Malta and the Ligurian side.” Of course this quatrain requires a shoehorned interpretation of Hister into Hitler, an ill-conceived reading since Hister is the Latin name for the Danube River, and this is clearly contextualized by its mention with the Rhine. Another famous quatrain is believed by some to have forecast the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan to end World War II: “Near the gates and within the cities/There will be two scourges the like of which was never seen/Famine within plague, people put out by steel/Crying to the great immortal God for relief.” The interpretation that this quatrain predicted Hiroshima and Nagasaki requires a vivid imagination to say the least. The prophecies of Nostradamus are abstract enough in their phrasing that they can be retrospectively fit to descriptions of monumental events, but when forecast accuracy is dependent on interpreting predictions after the fact, this is neither useful not credible.

Modern business forecasting of the type that I do relies much more heavily on objective accuracy for establishing credibility than the esoteric oracles of antiquity. My forecasts are typically quantitative, since money forms the basic unit of financial measurement, and you can count money. Business managers and decision makers usually want to know about the future in regards to certain numbers, such as expected quarterly revenue, inventory needs and costs, and how much additional sales to anticipate from a marketing promotion or a price change. Mathematical and statistical techniques are mixed with domain expertise and judgment in order to form specific quantitative predictions that are used for planning, and are thus able to be evaluated objectively. Predictive success through accuracy and credibility give businesses units an operational advantage, and the connection between operational and predictive success creates a proxy for evaluating predictive success by operational outcomes.

Ancient forecasting made do without the objective techniques that I use, and in lieu of these the old oracles used mysterious setting and ceremonies, enigmatic premonitions, and the authority of divine beings in order to establish their reputations and credibility. The Delphic Oracle benefited from a dramatic show of mystic possession by the Pythia, while the priests of Pachacamac conditioned their visitors by having them fast. Nostradamus and countless other astrologers have reaped the rewards from cryptic fortunes that are evaluated for success after that fact, and out of a plethora of forgotten forecasting failures. While these antiquated oracular techniques may have fulfilled a pressing need in their time, and perhaps even in our own, there is no reason to believe that they actually predict the future in any way. The philosopher Nicholas Rescher (61) has pointed out that the supposed confirmation of Nostradamus quatrains after the fact is “to transmute a triumph of hindsight into one of foresight.” Without accurate forecasts that are credible and known before the events in question, predictions lack any practical usefulness. Nonetheless, oracles have always been vital for humans, regardless of their true precognitive ability.

Jared Roy Endicott

The Vital Mysticism of Oracles
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Works Cited

Allan, Tony. Prophecies: 4,000 Years of Prophets, Visionaries and Predictions. London: Watkins Publishing, 2009 (orig. 2002). Print.

Hale, John R.. “Delphi - Questioning the Oracle”.Classical Archaeology in Ancient Greece and Rome. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2006. Print.

Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Second Ed. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002 (originals 399-380 B.C). Print.

Rescher, Nicholas. Predicting the Future: An Introduction to the Theory of Forecasting. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998. Print.

Ruiz, Teofilo F.. “Hermeticism, Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic”.The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2002. Print.


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