Sir Thomas Browne (1683) Certain Miscellany Tracts. Tract XI: Of the answers of the Oracle of Apollo, pp. 167-179





Oracle of Apollo at Delphos


Crœsus King of Lydia

Passages from “MS. Sloane”, not further identified by Wilkin but presumably 1839, as in Keynes, are in blue-gray


Men looked upon ancient oracles as natural, artificial, demoniacal, or all. They conceived something natural of them, as being in places affording exhalations, which were found to operate upon the brains of persons unto raptures, strange utterances and divinations; which being observed and admired by the people, an advantage was taken thereof: an artificial contrivance made by subtle crafty persons confederating to carry on a practice of divination; pretending some power of divinity therein; but because they sometimes made very strange predictions, and above the power of human reason, men were inclined to believe some demoniacal co-operation, and that some evil spirit ruled the whole scene; having so fair an opportunity to delude mankind and to advance his own worship; and were thought to proceed from the spirit of Apollo or other Heathen deities; so that these oracles were not only apprehended to be natural, human, or artificial, but also demoniacal, according to common opinion, and also of learned men, as Vossius hath declared, “Constitere quidem oracula fraudibus vatum, sed non solis; solertia humana, sed sæpe etiam diabolica. Cum multa predixerint, ad quæ nulla ratione humana mentis acumen perlegisset in natura humana non est subsistendum, sed assurgendum ad causas superioris naturæ, quales sunt dæmones.” According to which sense and opinion we shall enlarge upon this following oracle of Delphos.

Among the Oracles of Apollo1 there are none more celebrated than those which he delivered unto Crœsus King of Lydia,2 who seems of all Princes to have held the greatest dependence on them. But most considerable are his plain and intelligible replies which he made unto the same King, when he sent his Chains of Captivity unto Delphos, after his overthrow by Cyrus, with sad expostulations why he encouraged him unto that fatal War by his Oracle, saying, Προλέγουσαι Κροίσῳ ἢν στρατεύνται ἐπὶ Πέρσας, μεγάλην Ἀρχήν μιν καταλύσειν Crœsus, if he Wars against the Persians, shall dissolve a great Empire.3 Why, at least, he prevented not that sad infelicity of his devoted and bountifull Servant, and whether it were fair or honourable for the Gods of Greece to be ingratefull: which being a plain and open delivery of Delphos, and scarce to be parallel’d in any ancient story, it may well deserve your farther consideration.

1. His first reply was, That Crœsus suffered not for himself; but paid the transgression of his fifth predecessour, who kill’d his Master and usurp’d the dignity unto which he held no title.[4]

Now whether Crœsus suffered upon this account or not, hereby he plainly betrayed his insufficiency to protect him; and also obliquely discovered he had a knowledge of his misfortune; for knowing that wicked act lay yet unpunished, he might well divine some of his successours might smart for it: and also understanding he was like to be the last of that race, he might justly fear and conclude this infelicity upon him.

Hereby he also acknowledged the inevitable justice of God; that though Revenge lay dormant, it would not always sleep; and consequently confessed the just hand of God punishing unto the third and fourth generation, nor suffering such iniquities to pass for ever unrevenged. The devil, who sees how things of this nature go on in kingdoms, nations, and families, is able to say much on this point; whereas, we, that understand not the reserved judgments of God, or the due time of their executions, are fain to be doubtfully silent.

Hereby he flatteringly encouraged him in the opinion of his own merits, and that he onely suffered for other mens transgressions: mean while he concealed Crœsus his pride, elation of mind and secure conceit of his own unparallel’d felicity, together with the vanity, pride and height of luxury of the Lydian Nation, which the Spirit of Delphos knew well to be ripe and ready for destruction.

2. A Second excuse was, That it is not in the power of God to hinder the Decree of Fate. A general evasion for any falsified prediction founded upon the common opinion of Fate, which impiously subjecteth the power of Heaven unto it; widely discovering the folly of such as repair unto him concerning future events: which, according unto this rule, must go on as the Fates have ordered, beyond his power to prevent or theirs to avoid;[5] and consequently teaching that his Oracles had onely this use to render men more miserable by foreknowing their misfortunes; whereof Crœsus himself held a sensible experience in that Dæmoniacal Dream concerning his eldest Son, That he should be killed by a Spear, which, after all care and caution, he found inevitably to befall him.[6]

3. In his Third Apology he assured him that he endeavoured to transfer the evil Fate and to pass it upon his Children; and did however procrastinate his infelicity, and deferred the destruction of Sardis and his own Captivity three years longer than was fatally decreed upon it.

Wherein while he wipes off the stain of Ingratitude, he leaves no small doubt whether, it being out of his power to contradict or transfer the Fates of his Servants, it be not also beyond it to defer such signal events, and whereon the Fates of whole Nations do depend.

As also, whether he intended or endeavoured to bring to pass what he pretended, some question might be made. For that he should attempt or think he could translate his infelicity upon his Sons, it could not consist with his judgment, which attempts not impossibles or things beyond his power; nor with his knowledge of future things, and the Fates of succeeding Generations: for he understood that Monarchy was to expire in himself, and could particularly foretell the infelicity of his Sons, and hath also made remote predictions unto others concerning the fortunes of many succeeding descents; as appears in that answer to Attalus,[7]

Be of good courage, Attalus, thou shalt reign
And thy Sons Sons, but not their Sons again.

As also unto Cypselus King of Corinth.[8]

Happy is the Man who at my Altar stands,
Great Cypselus who Corinth now commands.
Happy is he, his Sons shall happy be,
But for their Sons, unhappy days they’ll see.

Now, being able to have so large a prospect of future things, and of the fate of many Generations, it might well be granted that he was not ignorant of the Fate of Crœsus his Sons, and well understood it was in vain to think to translate his misery upon them.

4. In the Fourth part of his reply, he clears himself of Ingratitude which Hell it self cannot hear of; alledging that he had saved his life when he was ready to be burnt, by sending a mighty Showre, in a fair and cloudless day, to quench the Fire already kindled, which all the Servants of Cyrus could not do. Though this Shower might well be granted, as much concerning his honour, and not beyond his power when countenanced by divine permission or decree; yet whether this mercifull Showre fell not out contingently or were not contrived by an higher power,[9] which hath often pity upon Pagans, and rewardeth their vertues sometimes with extraordinary temporal favours; also, in no unlike case, who was the authour of those few fair minutes, which, in a showry day, gave onely time enough for the burning of Sylla’s Body, some question might be made.[10]

5. The last excuse devolveth upon the errour and miscarriage of the business upon Crœsus, and that he deceived himself by an inconsiderate misconstruction of his Oracle, that if he had doubted, he should not have passed it over in silence, but consulted again for an exposition of it. Besides, he had neither discussed, nor well perpended his Oracle concerning Cyrus, whereby he might have understood not to engage against him.

Wherein, to speak indifferently, the deception and miscarriage seems chiefly to lie at Crœsus his door, who, if not infatuated with confidence and security, might justly have doubted the construction: besides, he had received two Oracles before, which clearly hinted an unhappy time unto him: the first concerning Cyrus.[11]

When ever a Mule shall o’er the Medians reign,
Stay not, but unto Hermus fly amain.

Herein though he understood not the Median Mule of Cyrus, that is, of his mixed descent, and from Assyrian and Median Parents, yet he could not but apprehend some misfortune from that quarter.

Though this prediction seemed a notable piece of Divination, yet did it not so highly magnify his natural sagacity or knowledge of future events as was by many esteemed; he having no small assistance herein from the Prophecy of Daniel concerning the Persian Monarchy,[12] and the Prophecy of Jeremiah and Isaiah, wherein he might reade the name of Cyrus who should restore the Captivity of the Jews,[13] and must, therefore, be the great Monarch and Lord of all those Nations.

The same misfortune was also foretold when he demanded of Apollo if ever he should hear his dumb Son speak.[14]

O foolish Crœsus who hast made this choice,
To know when thou shalt hear thy dumb Son’s voice;
Better he still were mute, would nothing say,
When he first speaks, look for a dismal day.

This, if he contrived not the time and the means of his recovery, was no ordinary divination: yet how to make out the verity of the story some doubt may yet remain. For though the causes of deafness and dumbness were removed, yet since words are attained by hearing, and men speak not without instruction, how he should be able immediately to utter such apt and significant words, as15 Ἄνϑρωπε, μὴ κτεῖνε Κροῖσον, O Man slay not Crœsus, it cannot escape some doubt, since the Story also delivers, that he was deaf and dumb, that he then first began to speak, and spake all his life after.[16]

Now notwithstanding this plausible apology and evasion, if Crœsus had consulted again for a clearer exposition of what was doubtfully delivered, whether the Oracle would have spake out the second time or afforded a clearer answer, some question might be made from the examples of his practice upon the like demands.

So, when the Spartans had often fought with ill success against the Tegeates, they consulted the Oracle what God they should appease, to become victorious over them.[17] The answer was, that they should remove the Bones of Orestes. Though the words were plain, yet the thing was obscure, and like finding out the Body of Moses.[18] And therefore they once more demanded in what place they should find the same; unto whom he returned this answer,[19]

When in the Tegean Plains a place thou find’st
Where blasts are made by two impetuous Winds,
Where that that strikes is struck, blows follow blows
There doth the Earth Orestes Bones enclose.

Which obscure reply the wisest of Sparta could not make out, and was casually unriddled by one talking with a Smith who had found large Bones of a Man buried about his House; the Oracle importing no more than a Smith’s Forge, expressed by a double Bellows, the Hammer and Anvil therein.

Now, why the Oracle should place such consideration upon the Bones of Orestes the Son of Agamemnon, a mad man and a murtherer, if not to promote the idolatry of the Heathens, and maintain a superstitious veneration of things of no activity, it may leave no small obscurity.[20]

Or why, in a business so clear in his knowledge, he should affect so obscure expressions it may also be wondred; if it were not to maintain the wary and evasive method in his answers: for, speaking obscurely in things beyond doubt within his knowledge, he might be more tolerably dark in matters beyond his prescience.

Though EI were inscribed over the Gate of Delphos,[21] yet was there no uniformity in his deliveries. Sometimes with that obscurity as argued a fearfull prophecy; sometimes so plainly as might confirm a spirit of divinity; sometimes morally, deterring from vice and villany; another time vitiously, and in the spirit of bloud and cruelty: observably modest in his civil enigma and periphrasis of that part which old Numa would plainly name, and Medea would not understand, when he advised Ægeus not to draw out his foot before, untill arriv'd upon the Athenian ground;22 whereas another time he seemed too literal in that unseemly epithet unto Cyanus King of Cyprus,23 and put a beastly trouble upon all Ægypt to find out the Urine of a true Virgin.24 Sometimes, more beholding unto memory than invention, he delighted to express himself in the bare Verses of Homer. But that he principally affected Poetry, and that the Priest not onely or always composed his prosal raptures into Verse, seems plain from his necromantical Prophecies, whilst the dead Head in Phlegon delivers a long Prediction in Verse;[25] and at the raising of the Ghost of Commodus unto Caracalla, when none of his Ancestours would speak, the divining Spirit versified his infelicities;[26] corresponding herein to the apprehensions of elder times, who conceived not onely a Majesty but something of Divinity in Poetry, and as in ancient times the old Theologians delivered their inventions.[27]

Some critical Readers might expect in his oraculous Poems a more than ordinary strain and true Spirit of Apollo; not contented to find that Spirits make Verses like Men, beating upon the filling Epithet, and taking the licence of dialects and lower helps, common to humane Poetry; wherein, since Scaliger, who hath spared none of the Greeks, hath thought it wisedom to be silent, we shall make no excursion.

Others may wonder how the curiosity of elder times, having this opportunity of his Answers, omitted Natural Questions; or how the Magicians discovered no more Philosophy; and if they had the assistance of Spirits, could rest content with the bare assertions of things, without the knowledge of their causes; whereby they had made their Acts iterable by sober hands, and a standing part of Philosophy. Many wise Divines hold a reality in the wonders of the Ægyptian Magicians, and that those magnalia which they performed before Pharaoh were not mere delusions of Sense.[28] Rightly to understand how they made Serpents out of Rods; Froggs and Bloud of Water, were worth half Porta’s Magick.[29]

Hermolaus Barbarus was scarce in his wits, when, upon conference with a Spirit, he would demand no other question than the explication of Aristotle’s Entelecheia.[30] Appion the Grammarian, that would raise the Ghost of Homer to decide the Controversie of his Country, made a frivolous and pedantick use of Necromancy.[31] Philostratus did as little, that call’d up the Ghost of Achilles for a particular of the Story of Troy.32 Smarter curiosities would have been at the great Elixir, the Flux and Reflux of the Sea, with other noble obscurities in Nature; but probably all in vain: in matters cognoscible and framed for our disquisition, our Industry must be our Oracle, and Reason our Apollo.

Not to know things without the Arch of our Intellectuals, or what Spirits apprehend, is the imperfection of our nature not our knowledge, and rather inscience than ignorance in man. Revelation might render a great part of the Creation easie which now seems beyond the stretch of humane indagation, and welcome no doubt from good hands might be a true Almagest, and great celestial construction: a clear Systeme of the planetical Bodies of the invisible and seeming useless Stars unto us, of the many Suns in the eighth Sphere, what they are, what they contain and to what more immediately those stupendious Bodies are serviceable. But being not hinted in the authentick Revelation of God, nor known how far their discoveries are stinted; if they should come unto us from the mouth of evil Spirits, the belief thereof might be as unsafe as the enquiry, and how far to credit the father of darkness and great obscurer of truth, might yet be obscure unto us.[33]

This is a copious Subject, but, having exceeded the bounds of a Letter, I will not, now, pursue it farther. I am,

Yours, &c.


1. See Vulg. Err. l. 7 c. 12. [Of the cessation of Oracles.]

2. Herod. l. 1, 46, 47, &c. 70, 91. [Herodotus Histories 1.46 ff. recounts the decision to consult an oracle and the answer; Herodotus Histories 1.70, part of the result; and Herodotus Histories 1.90 ff the sending of his “Chains of Captivity” and the justification given by the priestess. Crœsus sent to every oracle ever heard of, including all the Greek oracles and Ammon in Lydia, but only the Delphic oracle and that of Amphiaraus passed a preliminary test. Only the Pythian response to the genuine questions is recorded verbatim.]

3. Herod. Ibid. 54. [1.53.3. Both the Delphic and the Amphiarauean “oracles” gave the same answer. (The oracle of Amphiaraus in Oropus was incubatory, with help in interpretation coming from the “seer”; see Pausanias.) Browne's “he”, here and elsewhere, is the god Apollo, not the Pythian priestess or the Amphiarauean priest/seer. It is worthy of note that oracular responses were frequently attributed to “the god” or Apollo even at the oracles nominally of other gods. As the Delphic oracle became more famous, some responses originally attributed to other seers were re-assigned to the Pythia. It is further worthy of note that, in ancient days, the “demons” that some held to inspire the seers and priestesses were not evil; see Plutarch “On the Obsolescence of Oracles”.]

4. [Browne’s “Second excuse” was in fact the first given by the oracle and Browne’s “first” was second; Herodotus 1.91.]

5. [It seems to me that this is, in fact, the only possible explanation in favor of oracles: only if Fate is determined is it possible to know it. The utility of the information is another question, of course; but many people desire avidly to know the hour of their death, or the sex of their unborn children, without either the ability or the wish to do anything with the information.]

6. [On Atys, son of Crœsus, see Herodotus Histories 1.34 and following. Crœsus’ second son was mute and therefore “ruined” in the days before the Athenians with Disabilities Act.]

7. [Pausanias 10.15.3 refers to this in passing while quoting the verses of Phaennis, not specifying which oracle (“χρηστηριον”); Diodorus 35.13 and the Suda, A4316, quote the verses given (more or less) by Browne.]

8. [Herodotus 5.92e. Cypselus’ son was Periander; Periander’s sons turned against him after Periander killed their mother Melissa.]

9. [Wilkin holds that this higher power can only be the devil: “The whole course of these observations on the Delphian oracle reminds us of what Sir Thomas had declared to be his opinion — viz. that it was a Satanic agency.— In his larger work, Pseud. Epid. he devoted a chapter (the 13th of book 7 [actually it's the 12th book, but Wilkin has done a bit of reorganizing in his edition of the Vulgar Errors]) to the subject of the ‘cessation of oracles;’ in which he takes no pains to prove them to have existed in any other way than by the mere juggle of the priests, imposing on the ignorance and superstition of the people; but, assuming the fact that a real divination, through the agency of Satan, was permitted to exist in Pagan antiquity, he only discusses the question of how and when such permission was withdrawn and oracles ceased to exist.

“Since the preceding remarks were written, I turned to Dr. Johnson’s brief account of these Miscellany Tracts, in his life of the author, and find the following observation: — ‘In this tract nothing deserves notice, more than that Browne considers the oracles as evidently and indubitably supernatural, and founds all his disquisition upon that postulate.’ ”

Wilkin’s postulate, however, is difficult to reconcile with what Browne in fact writes: that the shower, if it did not occur by happenstance, may have been a merciful reward for (pagan) virtue — hardly what one would expect from the Devil. (Dr. Johnson is quite correct and quite cautious: Browne does consider oracles supernatural, in this letter; he does not deal, except in passing, with the question of fraud. By the same token, however, Browne does not specify that they are universally of any one shade of the supernatural, whether good or evil.) Browne’s is a more interesting proposition: that true power can intervene in the face of, or even through the agency of, the false or evil. It should further be noted that Browne (and Wilkin, and to an extent Herodotus and Crœsus) are confusing prophecy and power. The proper questions are two: why Crœsus was defeated; and why the oracle was not more forthcoming — for the oracle did not lie.

On another level, Dr. Johnson’s remark, while technically true, is basically misleading, especially to a modern reader, whose “consider” may not be Dr. Johnson’s. Of course Browne “considers the oracles as evidently and indubitably supernatural, and founds all his disquisition upon that postulate”. Whether he believed that to be the case is highly open to question; but he must thus consider them to write anything of interest about them. A letter that ran “Dear Sir, The oracles were of course literary inventions or the shenanigans of priest-craftery, Yours, &c.” would be, even amplified, an unrewarding essay.]

10. [After his death of a gruesome disease, caused either by his wickedness (Pausanias 9.33.6) or his high living (Plutarch); according to Plutarch’s Sylla, “It is said that the Roman ladies contributed such vast heaps of spices, that besides what was carried on two hundred and ten litters, there was sufficient to form a large figure of Sylla himself, and another representing a lictor, out of the costly frankincense and cinnamon. The day being cloudy in the morning, they deferred carrying forth the corpse till about three in the afternoon, expecting it would rain. But a strong wind blowing full upon the funeral pile, and setting it all in a bright flame, the body was consumed so exactly in good time, that the pyre had begun to smoulder, and the fire was upon the point of expiring, when a violent rain came down, which continued till night. So that his good fortune was firm even to the last, and did as it were officiate at his funeral. His monument stands in the Campus Martius, with an epitaph of his own writing; the substance of it being, that he had not been outdone by any of his friends in doing good turns, nor by any of his foes in doing bad.”]

11. [Herodotus Histories 1.55.1]

12. [In Daniel 10:1 ff.]

13. [Isa. 44-45. Jer. 15:22, 22:2, and pretty much passim: the fulfilment, 2 Chr. 36:22 ff.]

14. [Herodotus 1.85.2.]

15. Herod. l. 1, 85. [1.85.4]

16. [In 1.34, Herodotus calls this son κωφος and διεφϑαρτος; the first means “dull” (and, hence, sometimes, “deaf” or “mute”), the second “ruined”, “blasted”, etc. In 1:85, he says specifically that the son was mute (ἀφωνος), and “fine in other respects”; therefore we may assume either that he could hear or that Herodotus himself found problems with the story. All which notwithstanding, as Browne might say, there is little to choose between the miracle that restores speech and the miracle that grants facility of speech at the same time.]

17. [Herodotus 1.67.2; mentioned glancingly by Pausanias, 3.11.10; Pliny HN vii.74 (or englished by Holland.)]

18. [Deut. 34:6, “And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” Cf. Jude 1:9.]

19. [Herodotus 1.67.4; Diodorus 9.36; reference (and more of the story) in Pausanias 3.3.6.

20. [The type is not uncommon in oracle stories. For instance, the city of Athens was asked to find the bones of Theseus ( Pausanias 3.3.7, as in the note above), and another Delphic oracle to Sparta, recorded by Pausanias 7.1.8, required the Lacedæmonians to move the bones of Tisamenos from Helice to Sparta, where, Pausanias says, Tisamenos’s (new) grave was still to be seen in his day. It is presumably a variant on the “secret-name” and “Palladium” motif: the protecting item (name, object, or bones as in this case), because of its extreme power, is hidden from all but a few, and, from time to time, even lost to knowledge, whereupon it must be recovered. As for the career of Orestes, it is, while not entirely wholesome, not so very far out of the common course for Greek heroes; and Orestes did, as it were, reform (and was cured of his madness as well) and go on to better, if short-handed and short-haired, things. The Romans believed Orestes was buried in Rome: Tombs of Ancient Rome.]

21. [See Plutarch Moralia; in particular, ‘On the “E” at Delphi’. There is little doubt that it was the single letter epsilon ε or a variant and not ει.]

22. Plut. in Thes. [ Theseus 3.3; the same prophecy is in Euripides, Medea 679, 681. “Foot”:

ασκοῦ με τόν προύχοντα μῆ λῦσαι πόδα μέγα φέρτατε λαῶν,
ῆ λύσῃις πρῖν δῆμον Ἀϑηνέων εἰσαφικέσϑαι·

in Plutarch;

ασκοῦ με τόν προύχοντα μῆ λῦσαι πόδα
πρῖν ἄν πατρῴιαν αὔϑις ἑστίαν μόλω

in Euripides; usually translated “wineskin” (“ποδεων”) in both cases. In the Comparison of Theseus and Romulus, VI.5, Plutarch once again adverts to this oracle, in a more direct paraphrase, “it forbade him to approach a woman while in a foreign land”. Orac. ap. Apollod. 3.15.6. has "ασκου τον προυψοντα ποδαονα". The possibility that this was simply a vulgar expression for the membrum virile is negated by the story itself, as Aigeus could make no sense of the oracle; surely he would have if the expression were common. On Medea, see the passage in Euripides. The allusion to Numa is puzzling; Browne may be referring to the very odd story of Romulus' parentage (in Romulus II.3-5, keeping in mind that Theseus and Romulus are paired in the Parallel lives), but Numa does not enter into this story. No doubt, however, Numa would have referred to it plainly, being that sort of man.]

23. V. Herod. [All editions have this note at this place, but it belongs with the next phrase, as note 24. There is no “Cyanus” in Herodotus; it would be a highly unlikely name in any case. Read, instead, Cinyras, Κινυρας. Browne is recalling Athenæus X.456a, where an oracle delivered to Cinyras is reproduced from Plato Comicus, Adonides:

ὦ Κινύρα, βασιλεῦ Κυπρίων, ἀνδρῶν δασυπρώκτων,
παῖς σοι κἀλλιστος μέν ἔφυ ϑαυμαστότατός τε
πάντων ἀνϑρώπων, δύο δ᾽ αὐτὸν δαίμον’ ὀλεῖτον, [or ἔχητον]
ἣ μὲν ἐλαυνομένη λαθρίοις ἐρετμοῖς, ὃ δ’ ἐλαύνων.

O Cinyra, rex Cypriorum quibus hirtus podex est,
Infans tibi genitus est formosissimus & pulchritudinis
Inter universos homines summopere admirandae.
Illum duo numina in potestate habebunt,
Occultis & aviis callibus alterum ille subiget, illum vero alter.

δασυπρώκτων = “hairy-assholed” = “hirtus podex”, where it’s no longer an “epithet”. It refers rather to the Cypriots than to Cinyras personally (he may not have been a Cypriot; some sources say he was Assyrian). For more on the career of Cinyras, legendary king of Cyprus (or Assyria, or both), father by his daughter Myrrha or Smyrna of Adonis, legendarily wealthy, good-looking (Hyginus) and long-lived, see Ovid Metamorphoses 10.298 and cf. 6.87 and the various passages from Apollodorus and Pausanias at Perseus Encyclopedia Cinyras; the pseudo-Clementine Homily 5 asserts that Apollo loved him; see also Pindar Pythian Odes 2.15 on this and on his association with the temple at Paphos, on which subject see also Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation; on his longevity, see Pliny HN VII.154 (englished), quoting Anacreon; on his (small) part in the Trojan wars, see Pseudo-Apollodorus e.3.9, with its famous story of the “ships” donated by Cinyras and the breastplate(s) he made for Agamemnon, which breastplate shows up duly in Homer Iliad 11.19 ff; on his wealth, Pindar Nemean Odes 8.18 strophe 2 and Plato Laws 660e, where he is paired with Midas. He is, in some mythologies (mostly recent), a divinity or semi-divinity associated with metallurgy. Pliny HN VII.195 asserts that Cinyras “son of Agriopas” invented tiles and copper-mining, as well as tongs, hammer, crowbar and anvil.]

24. [As noted above, V. Herod. belongs here. Not “the Urine of a true Virgin”, but what is perhaps more rare, the urine of a woman who had slept with no man but her husband; and not the Delphic oracle, but the oracle of Leto (Apollo’s mother) at Buto; see Herodotus Histories 2.111.]

25. [Phlegon of Tralles, in his Περι Θαυμασιων (de Mirabilis), cap. II. The gist of the story: Polycritus was elected leader of Aetolia. During his term, he took a Locrian wife; on the fourth day of his marriage, he died, leaving his wife pregnant. In due course, she bore a hermaphroditic child. Astounded, the Aetoleans called an assembly to debate the meaning of such an alarming event. While they were debating, the ghost of Polycritus, clad entirely in black, appeared near the child. Once the uproar died down, he addressed them, saying he had come for their benefit, soothed them, and asked that they give the child to him, to avoid their giving violence to the child in response to the ominous forecasts of their seers. “If,” he said, “you will obey me without question, the fear will be over, and the catastrophe you fear will be averted. But if you do not, that catastrophe will come to you without fail. And please answer quickly, as I cannot stay long.” But the majority of the Aetoleans were unwilling; upon which, he spoke again, saying “Do not blame me, at least, if you fall into trouble, but blame fate, a fate that also forces me to act against my own child.” Whereupon the ghost grabbed the child, tore it limb from limb, and devoured it, all but the head, and then disappeared. The people, greatly troubled (as indeed who would not be) by all this, wished to send to Delphi to inquire the meaning of the events, whereupon the head spoke (2.11.5-32):

Ὦ πολυύμνητον ναίων χϑόνα λαὸς ἀπείρων,
μὴ στεῖχ’ ἐς Φοίβου τέμενος ναόν τε ϑυώδη·
οὐ γάρ σοι καϑαραὶ χέρες αἵματος αἰϑέρ’ ἔχουσιν,
ἀλλὰ μύσος προπάροιϑε ποδῶν ἔντοσϑε κελεύϑου.
φράζεο δ’ ἐξ ἐμέϑεν, τρίποδος δ’ ἀπόειπε κέλευϑον·
μαντοσύνης πᾶσαν γὰρ ἐφετμήν σοι καταλέξω.
ἤματι γὰρ τούτῳ περιτελλομένου ἐνιαυτοῦ
ὥρισται πᾶσιν ϑάνατος, ψυχαὶ δὲ βίονται
Λοκρῶν Αἰτωλῶν τ’ ἀναμὶξ βουλῇσιν Ἀϑήνης.
οὐδ’ ἀναπαύλησις κακοῦ ἔσσεται οὐδ’ ἠβαιόν·
ἤδη γὰρ ψακάδες φόνιαι κατὰ κρᾶτα κέχυνται,
νὺξ δ’ ἐπὶ πάντα κέκευϑε, μέλας δ’ ἐπιδέδρομεν αἴϑρη.
αὐτίκα νὺξ δ’ ἔρεβος πᾶσαν κατὰ γαῖαν ὄρωρεν,
χῆροι δ’ οἴκοι πάντες ἐπ’ οὔδεϊ γυῖα κλινοῦσιν,
οὐδὲ γυνὴ πένϑος ποτὲ λείψεται, οὐδέ νυ παῖδες
ἃν μεγάροις γοόωσι, φίλους πατέρας περιφύντες·
τοῖον γὰρ τόδε κῦμα κατέδραμε πᾶσι κατ’ ἄκρης.
αἲ αἲ πατρίδ’ ἐμὴν αἰεὶ στένω αἰνὰ παϑοῦσαν
μητέρα τ’ αἰνοτάτην, ἣν ὕστερον ἔκλυσεν αἰών.
νώνυμνόν τε ϑεοὶ γένεσιν ϑήσουσιν ἅπαντες
Λοκρῶν τ’ Αἰτωλῶν ϑ’ ὅ τί που καὶ σπέρμα λίποιτο,
οὕνεκ’ ἐμὴν κεφαλὴν λίποι αἰών, οὐδέ νυ πάντα
σώματος ἠφάνικεν μέλε’ ἄκριτα, λεῖπε δὲ γαῖαν.
ἀλλ’ ἄγ’ ἐμὴν κεφαλὴν ϑέμεν’ ἠοῖ φαινομένῃφι,
μηδέ ϑ’ ὑπὸ ζοφερὴν γαῖαν κατακρυπτέμεν ἔνδον·
αὐτοὺς δὲ προλιπόντας ἑὸν χῶρον μετόπισϑεν
στείχειν εἰς ἄλλον χῶρον καὶ λαὸν Ἀϑήνης,
εἴ τινά που ϑανάτοιο λύσιν κατὰ μοῖραν ἕλησϑε.

Or, as translated by William Hansen (Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels, University of Exeter Press, 1996) (shortened here):

O countless folk inhabiting a land famed in song,
Do not go to the sanctuary of Phoebus, to the temple with its incense,
For the hands you hold in the air are unclean from blood,
The journey before your feet is defiled.

I will recount the entire behest of the oracle.
On this day in the course of a year
Death has been ordained for all, but by the will of Athena
The souls of Locrians and Aetoleans shall live mixed together.
Nor shall there be a respite from evil, not even briefly,
For a bloody drizzle is poured on your heads,
Night keeps everything hidden, and a dark sky has spread over it,
At once night causes a darkness to move over the entire earth,
[much more wailing, including some that is frankly unintelligible]
All the gods will render inglorious the birth
Of whatever remains of Aetolean and Locrian seed,
Because death has not touched my head, nor has it done away
With all the indistinguishable limbs of my body but has left me on the earth.
Come and expose my head to the rising dawn, and
Do not hide it below within the dusky earth.
As for you yourselves, abandon the land and
Go to another land, to a people of Athena,
If you choose an escape from death in accordance with fate.

The Aetoleans, who in this account reveal themselves as singularly stubborn, thereupon removed their wives and children and the old to places of refuge; they themselves remained. In the following year they and the Acarnanians nearly destroyed one another. A similar story is told of Publius, cap. III, whose head delivers an oracle from Apollo in twelve verses after his body is devoured by a red wolf.]

26. [Dio’s Roman History, Epit. Lib. LXXVIII, 15.2-16.2.]

27. [On the question of oracular verse in general, see Plutarch on Why the Pythia Does Not Now Give Oracles in Verse.]

28. [Exod. 7:9 ff.]

29. [Much of Giambattista della Porta’s “Natural Magic” — probably his most popular work — is on line at “John Baptist Porta” Natural Magick in the 1658 English edition, along with a discussion of his work and links at “John Baptist Porta” - The Author and his Work.]

30. [As Hermolaus allegedly called up the spirit (or demon) for that very reason, while translating Aristotle, it’s hardly fair to castigate him for it. Ermolao Barbaro, 1454-1493, commentator on Aristotle, Dioscorides, Plato, et al., patriarch of Aquileia.]

31. [Apianus. Not really the ghost of Homer, but spirits, generally; according to Pliny xxx.18, in a passage dripping with contempt for someone Pliny obviously regarded as a charlatan:

When I was a young man I saw Apion, the “grammarian”, state that the herb cynocephalia (which in Egypt would be called osiritis) had a special relationship with the gods and was a protection against all kinds of sorcery, but if it were completely uprooted he who had done so would die on the spot; and that he himself had called up ghosts to question them in detail as to what might be Homer's native land and who might have been his parents, yet he dared not declare in public what he said they had replied to him.

The question was later asked of the Pythia by Hadrian. (The answer was “Homer was an Ithacan, the son of Telemachos and Epikaste”, which fit neatly with Hadrian’s preconceptions. See Certamen Homerici et Hesiodi 37-40.)]

32. [In Life of Apollonius, where Achilles is asked five not very interesting questions about the Trojan expedition. Perhaps that is all that the ghost of Achilles was qualified to answer.]

33. The Sloane manuscript ends at this point.

Sir Thomas Browne, Certain Miscellany Tracts, London: Charles Mearn (1683). Tract XI, pp. 167-179: Of the answers of the Oracle of Apollo to Crœsus King of Lydia.

This page is by James Eason.

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