The Obsolescence of Oracles


Plutarch’s answer to the question why many oracles in Greece have ceased to function is that the population is now much less than it was, and so there is less need for oracles now than in earlier times. For example, at Delphi there used to be two prophetic priestesses with a third held in reserve; now there is only one, and yet she is sufficient for every need.

The statement of this simple fact hardly requires twenty-nine folio pages, but in this essay, as in the two preceding, there is much of the conversation of cultured persons which is not directly connected with the subject. Thus we find a discussion of whether the year is growing shorter, whether the number of the worlds is one or some number not more than five or is one hundred and eighty-three. We have further discussion of the number five, some astronomy, and a good deal of geometry, some interesting bits of information about Britain and the East and a rather long discussion of the daimones, the beings a little lower than the gods and considerably higher than mortals; perhaps the translation ‘demi-gods’ might best convey the idea in English. These beings are thought by many persons to be in charge of the oracles; certainly the god himself does not appear personally at his oracles; and in the case of the


The Obsolescence of Oracles

oracle at Delphi some account is given of the accidental discovery by a shepherd of the peculiar powers of the exhalation from the cleft in the rocks.

Students of English literature will be interested in the dramatic description of the announcement of the death of Pan; and students of religion will be interested in the essay as a very early effort to reconcile science and religion. That the essay had an appeal to theologians is clear from the generous quotations made from it by Eusebius and Theodoretus. We could wish that they had quoted even more, since their text is usually superior to that contained in the manuscripts, which in some places are quite hopeless. The mss. have also an unusual number of lacunae. Much has been done in the way of correction, sometimes perhaps too much, since Plutarch’s thought is not always necessarily so logical as the editors would make it.

Some parts of the essay make rather difficult reading, but it also contains passages of considerable interest and even beauty.

The essay is No. 88 in Lamprias’s list of Plutarch’s works.

The conversation is professedly narrated by Plutarch’s brother Lamprias to Terentius Priscus, but some have thought that Plutarch has used the person of Lamprias to represent himself, possibly because of the official position held by Plutarch at Delphi.

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.plutarch-moralia_obsolescence_oracles.1936