• PAGING THE ORACLE: INTERPRETATION, IDENTITY AND PERFORMANCE IN HERODOTUS' HISTORY

    Author(s):
    Elton Barker (see profile)
    Date:
    2006
    Group(s):
    Ancient Greece & Rome
    Subject(s):
    Ancient Greek historiography, Classical Greek culture, Classical Greek literature, Greek historiography
    Item Type:
    Article
    Tag(s):
    Greek historiography
    Permanent URL:
    http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/M6H92N
    Abstract:
    Herodotus begins his inquiry (‘historia’) into why Greeks and Persians came into conflict with the figure of Croesus, ‘the first man whom we know enslaved Greeks’ – the archetypal eastern despot. In the subsequent narrative of his reign, Herodotus explores the reasons behind Croesus’s actions, and the consequences following on from them, through a series of consultations that Croesus seeks with the Delphic oracle, which he tries to enlist in support of his imperial project. This paper argues that Herodotus frames these consultations in such a way that not only challenges the king’s power but also puts the oracle’s famed ambiguity to service in a way that obstructs complacent reading of his narrative. From the beginning of Herodotus’ narrative, the oracle is represented as a key site in and over which the competing claims of knowledge and power are played out. Croesus courts the oracle with a display of riches beyond measure, but fails to interpret correctly its responses, which raises several important issues. First, it shows that the oracle cannot be put at the personal service of a powerful individual, who, by showering the god with gifts, had expected a simple transaction of knowledge. Second, it undermines the power of that individual, whose downfall is expressly precipitated by virtue of having got the oracle wrong. Third, it raises the possibility that the reason for the failure of interpretation is institutional: because Croesus is solely responsible for posing the question and interpreting the response, the likelihood of him getting it wrong is greatly increased. By leading its readers through a process of interpreting the oracle Herodotus’s narrative presents itself as an alternative venue for political decision-making. In this way, readers not only learn about the limits of authority and what it means to be free, but in doing so enact their difference as an independent, free-thinking agents.
    Metadata:
    Published as:
    Journal article    
    Status:
    Published
    Last Updated:
    9 months ago
    License:
    All Rights Reserved

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