Home > 2011 Posts > Some Things Last a Thousand Years

Some Things Last a Thousand Years

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

A while ago, my granddaughter paced around the kitchen at lunchtime like an agitated tigress in a small cage while our microwave re-heated her pizza. After 30 seconds or so, she looked over at me and murmured under her breath in mock-exasperation, “This is taking forever!”

I smiled and gave her an understanding nod. For her, CDs are quaint, old technology where it takes so long to find the song you want. And, her mother’s box of cassette tapes in the closet at home comes from a time when Merlin advised Arthur about Mordred and dinosaurs roamed the earth, a time when those wacky Saudis came over to New York and got their Jihad on.

But, it’s possible for many more things than heating her pizza to last longer than a 20 second sound bite, or a school year, or even a human life span. Some of them can even last far longer than the average Sequoia.

A few examples: Han China, most major religions, Rome in the West, the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, in the east, the Republic of Venice, and the Oracle at Delphi.

Delphi was the most respected source of prophesy and divine answers in the Classical world. Also, for me, Delphi is unique in that list of long-lived human things because it says a lot about human nature.

My favorite comment about that mysterious source of cryptic pronouncements on the shoulder of Mount Parnassus comes from historian and author Henry Adams back in 1898 (before the dinosaurs):

Delphi, I should think perhaps is the Greekest thing of all. It comes nearest to being serious, and is charming; a transparent and elegant fraud that no one more than half believed in except when it suited them, but that was artistically satisfactory and socially perfect.”

Just like power politics and professional doomsaying, the oracle business was based on a perpetual con. Today, we have our predictors of the end of the world (one who even tried it twice this year alone) and the pathetic Climate Fraudsters who are now only fit for roles on Walking Dead. Back then, they had the Pythia, a much more elegant vessel for fraud.

In Classical times, she was the Gods-touched young woman who delivered divine messages in a hallucinated trance. I can’t think of her without recalling the movie ‘300’. In it, a young, half-dressed Pythia in the sacred room of mysteries writhes on the floor to erotic, pounding drums, finally gasping out the gods’ reply to Leonidas’ question. Most of the time, she is surrounded by vile, slavering, deformed old men, the Ephors. To show one of the timeless aspects of human nature represented by ancient oracles, those actors could have been stunt doubles for Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd when they tried to get into Princess Leia’s pants.

But, as Adams said, Delphi managed its con artistically and in a way that resonated socially. It did this in an astounding setting over a thousand years. The reason was that Delphi always seemed to manage the right tone and degree of ambiguity to survive. Well, most of the time.

There was that tussle with Nero. He had recently murdered his own mother and gone to Delphi with a question. In hindsight, the Pythia’s reply may have been a tad ill-considered. From out of her sinuous trance, she hurled:

“Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!”

As you might imagine, Nero was not completely happy with this. Among other indications of his displeasure, he had the Pythia buried alive. Even so, he took the last part of what she said as meaning he would have a long reign and die at 73. Since he was only 30 at the time and most folks didn’t reach fifty, 43 years sounded like a good run in the Debauched Absolute Ruler of the Known World business.

But, as with so many prophesies uttered by the Pythia for so many others, he got it wrong. Not long after, there was a brief revolt that deposed Nero with extreme prejudice. It was led by a Roman named Galba–who was 73 at the time.

Prophesies are so much easier to get right after the fact, aren’t they?

  1. November 20, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Great writing ….. and pictures !! Thanks !!

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