Prophecy, Charlatans and the Riddle of Jeopardy

By: Phoenix48

The god Apollo toyed with prophecy. It was something of a hobby.

“Beware the god who speaks in riddles, for his words hold the power of fate.”


Croesus’ Story

Apollo, an Olympian, was the god of practically everything – including but not limited to music, poetry, art, truth, archery, plague, healing, sun, and light. He was also in charge of one other important matter: Prophecy, which was one of his specialties. All the Olympian gods could see into the future a bit, but Apollo was the only one who frequently offered this gift to humans. He established oracles, the most famous of which was at Delphi, where he appointed the Pythia (high priestess). Kings, aristocrats, and occasionally ordinary people, would come to Delphi to beseech the Pythia to reveal what was to come.

Among the supplicants was Croesus, King of Lydia. Croesus was rich because he was responsible for a remarkable and revolutionary invention: Money. He minted the world’s first coins, which were Lydian (Lydia was in Anatolia, contemporary Turkey). Croesus could not contain his ambition to the borders of his small nation. And so, according to Herodotus’ History, he got this outlandish idea that it would be a good idea to invade and subdue Persia, the superpower of the 7th century B.C. Cyrus had united the Persians and the Medes and forged a mighty Persian Empire. Naturally, Croesus had some degree of anxiety about this undertaking.

Sobriety Tip: Before Invading a Neighboring Country, Always Consult a Certified Prophet

In order to judge the wisdom of the proposed invasion, he dispatched his emissaries to consult the Delphic Oracle laden with extravagant gifts (which, incidentally, were still on display in Delphi a century later.) The question the emissaries put on Croesus’ behalf was “What will happen if Croesus makes war on Persia?”

When Apollo’s voice echoes through the sacred shrine, the world trembles with the weight of its meaning Ancient Greek saying

Without hesitation, the Pythia answered, “He will destroy a mighty empire.”

“The gods are with us,” thought Croesus. “General, prepare your men!” (or words to that effect.)

Already counting the new territories shortly to be his, Croesus gathered his mercenary armies, invaded Persia – and was humiliatingly defeated. Not only was Lydian power destroyed, but he became, for the remainder of his life, a pathetic functionary in the Persian court. His role was little more than offering small pieces of advice to often indifferent officials – a hanger-on ex-king.

Apollo fresco prophecy
Apollo Fresca – Cody escouade delta, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t Get Played by Prophets

The injustice! Oh, the humanity! It really got to him. After all, he had played by the rules. He had asked for advice from the Pythia, he had paid handsomely, and she had done him wrong. So he sent another emissary to the Oracle (with much more modest gifts this time) and asked, “How could you do this to me?” Here is the answer:

“The prophecy given by Apollo ran that if Croesus made war upon Persia, he would destroy a mighty empire. Now in the face of that, if he had been well advised, he should have sent and inquired again, whether it was his own empire or that of Cyrus that was spoken of. But Croesus did not understand what was said, nor did he make question again. And so he has no one to blame but himself.”

Herodotus’ History

Listening to Prophecy is not Enough We Must Understand

We may choose to believe the Delphic Oracle was simply a scam to fleece gullible kings or we may believe the Oracle offered real wisdom. But regardless of how we look at it, what is indisputable is that disguised ambiguities are a prophet’s stock in trade. Nevertheless, the lesson of the Pythia is relevant: Even of oracles, we must ask intelligent questions, even when – particularly when – they seem to tell us exactly what we want to hear.

It is a mistake to blindly accept; we must understand. And we must not let our own ambitions and concerns about social standing and appearances get in the way of true understanding. We must convert prophecy into action and achievement with care. These days the oracles often volunteer their prophecies even when no one has asked. In either case, we must then decide what, if anything, to consider and perhaps adopt. But the first thing is to understand.

Cassandra’s Story

There’s another equally relevant story about Apollo and prophets, the story of Cassandra, Princess of Troy. It begins just before the Greeks invade Troy to start the Trojan War and therefore also occurs in what is now Turkey. Cassandra was the smartest and the most beautiful of the daughters of King Priam. Apollo, son of Zeus and the Titaness Latona, was a “newcomer” on Mr. Olympus and therefore constantly on the lookout for attractive humans, fell in love with her. Oddly – and this almost never happens – she resisted his advances. She refused the overtures of a god. Didn’t she know who he was?

So he tried to bribe her. But what could he give her? She was happy. Still, Apollo had a trick or two to run on her and he promised the gift of prophecy. The offer was irresistible. She agreed, quid pro quo. Apollo did some god stuff to create a seer/oracle/prophet out of a mere mortal. But then, scandalously, Cassandra reneged.

Apollo was not amused. But he couldn’t withdraw the gift of prophecy, because, after all, he was a god and the gods back then were old-school and kept their promises. Instead, he sentenced her to a clever and cruel fate: That no one would believe her prophecies. So Cassandra predicted to her own people the fall of Troy. Nobody paid attention. They didn’t want to hear. They made fun of her. The Greeks and Trojans both called her “the lady of many sorrows.” Perhaps today they would dismiss her warnings as “a hoax” or simply “fake news.”

Cassandra prophesy painting
Cassandra – Palmer, Henrietta L. (Henrietta Lee), b. 1834, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not All Prophecy is Fake

There’s a moment (this is from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon) when she can’t understand how it is that these urgent predictions of catastrophe – some of which, if believed, could be prevented – are being ignored.

She says to the Greeks, “How is it you don’t understand me? Your tongue I know only too well.” But the problem isn’t her language skills. The reason was (paraphrasing), “You see, it’s like this. Even the Delphic Oracle sometimes makes mistakes. Sometimes its prophecies can be interpreted different ways. We can’t be sure. And because we can’t be sure, we’re going to ignore it.” That’s the closest she gets to a meaningful response. The story was the same with the Trojans: “I prophesied to my countrymen,” she says, “all their disasters.” But they ignored her prophecies and were destroyed. Soon, so was she. Great story, eh?

The resistance to dire prophecy that Cassandra experienced is equally relevant today. Addicts are notoriously stubborn – as the saying goes, “You can always tell an alcoholic. You just can’t tell him much.”

Faced with an ominous prediction involving powerful, ingrained habits and thinking patterns, forces that may not easily be consciously influenced, we have a natural tendency to reject or ignore relevant prophecies. There is a temptation to minimize, dismiss, forget. And we’ve tried our best to mitigate and circumvent the danger and consequences, but to stop attempting to move around our problems and move through them might take time, effort, money, and courage; it requires us to alter the priorities of our lives, alter the way we look at ourselves and the world.

Two Pathological Reactions to Extreme Danger

The stories of Croesus and Cassandra represent the two extremes to predictions of deadly danger – Croesus representing the pole of unquestioning acceptance, propelled by narcissistic ego and other character flaws; and the Greek and Trojan response to Cassandra representing the pole of apathetic, immobile rejection of danger.

Fortunately today there exist ways to assess the validity of modern prophecies. There are a number of effective tenets: Arguments from authority carry little weight (“Because I said so” or “because my stats are high” or “because it says so in this here book” won’t work); simpler explanations employing fewer assumptions are preferred (Occam’s razor), vigorous debate is a healthy sign; the same conclusions have to be drawn independently by competing groups for an idea to be taken seriously; and so on. It’s ultimately up to each individual to steer a judicious course between the hazards of group-think, naiveté and outright denial.

The journey of recovery promises many unforeseen perils. Perhaps a discussion of the more common ones will be useful in meeting the challenges each of us face on the road ahead.

Author’s Note: The above representation of the story of Croesus and Cassandra was adapted from A Path Where No Man Thought (Chapter 1) by Carl Sagan and Richard Turco (1990) and is a Transformative Use under Fair Use copyright law.

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