“I don’t make mistakes. I make prophecies which immediately turn out to be wrong” – Murray Walker

You want my references?

Anybody can consult an oracle. Prophets are a dime a dozen. These days we call them economists and news analysts. Though fortune cookies and storefront psychics probably have comparable hit rates, in every age we endow certain luminaries with an uncanny ability to predict the future and rest our hopes on their guidance, happily ignoring (1) the typical vagueness of their presumed vision, or (2) their extraordinary lack of past accuracy. You would figure after a few millennia of throwing bones and pawing through sheep’s entrails, we would have refined our method of selecting the appropriate oracle for the situation. You would be incorrect. Sure this may have something to do with our own confirmation bias – we like to be told what we already want to believe.

Now, if you’re just looking for love, any old oracle will probably suffice. Whip out that tarot deck and have at it. The stakes just aren’t that high. If your questions have more dire import, let’s say like, “Should the Kingdom of Lydia go to war with the Achaemenid Empire?”, it behooves you to at least check some references and maybe run a test or two. Prophecy is a notoriously dicey affair. The universe hoards its secrets. Freaking greedy universe. Which leads us to our protagonist in this cautionary tale about the care and feeding of oracles, King Croesus of Lydia, who has come down the centuries to us in the English catchphrase, “richer than Croesus”. Not too shabby a literary legacy for a guy from the 5th Century B.C. Although, we’ve never seen his tax returns, so who can say for certain?

King Croesus (595-546 B.C.) ruled Lydia, an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern western Turkish provinces between 1200 to 546 B.C., for about 14 years. He is associated with issuing the first true gold coins of standardized purity as currency. And since he was the guy issuing them, he presumably had a bunch, hence his eternal association with fabulous wealth (not to mention that he was taxing everybody and their brother through the nose). Lydia, was getting pretty uppity and bumping up against the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great (600-530 B.C.), and Croesus was starting to contemplate slugging it out with Cyrus over all the gold and girls in the Near East. This was in retrospect unwise as Cyrus was busy conquering most of Western Asia and much of Central Asia, from the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, creating the largest empire the world had yet seen. Croesus was hitting a little out of his weight class, and that’s precisely the time you want a little stiffening of the spine from a reliable oracle. Without the convenience of modern day reviews off Yelp, which suspiciously does not have prophet listings, and with a momentous decision looming, Croesus needed a little reassurance that whichever diviner he contracted had serious oracular chops before he went toe to toe with a dude whose full regal title was “The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World”. Personally, I would have taken the fall, counted my standardized gold coins and retired to a nice Greek island, but kings will be kings. Clearly, no slouch, Croesus decided to test the veracity of the big name oracles in the area.

Accordingly, he dispatched envoys to six of the best known oracles then existing: Those of Delphi, Dodona, Branchidāe, Zeus Ammon, Trophonius, and Amphariaraus. On the hundredth day from their departure, the envoys were to ask these several oracles what was Croesus doing at home in Sardis at a particular moment. He had carefully kept the secret to himself, and had chosen an action which was beyond all possible conjecture. Four oracles failed: Amphiaraus was nearly right. Delphi alone succeeded perfectly (Carrington, 1954, p38).

Everybody knows the Oracle of Delphi –the heavy hitter of the Greek world. Second only to Delphi was northwestern Greece’s Dodona, thought to be the oldest Hellenic oracle. Branchidāe, on the Ionian coast was an oracle within a temple dedicated to Apollo. The oracle of Zeus Ammon was somewhere in the Libyan desert. The oracle of Trophonius was the focus of an oracular cult at Lebadaea in Central Greece. Amphiaraus was a renowned prophet northwest of Attica, and greatly honored in his time, said to be favored by both Zeus and Apollo. There were no doubt a lot of minor league oracles loitering about as well. The Near East and Mediterranean were thick with oracles, but King Croesus was rolling in coin, so he went with the big names. So what was Croesus doing at the time the oracles were getting jiggy with their oracular selves? Well, he came up with some pretty random stuff. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus tells us.

It seems that on the day appointed for his servants to consult the different oracles, determining to do what it would be equally difficult to discover or explain, he had cut in pieces a tortoise and a lamb, and boiled them together in a covered vessel of brass (Herodotus, Book1, XLVIII).

The Oracle at Delphi hit it on the nose, thus Croesus decided to pose the more pressing question of whether or not to open up a can of whoop-ass on Cyrus. The Delphic Oracle, cryptic as always, answered that “if he prosecuted a war with Persia he should overthrow a mighty empire”. Croesus did a little regal happy dance and set about preparations for war, willfully ignoring the lack of specificity as to which empire was about to fall. To make a long story short, King Cyrus kicked his ass in 546 B.C., incorporating Lydia into his ever-expanding empire. Oracles can be such jerks.

Don’t get me wrong, predicting the future is a tough business. If you can do it, you should probably keep it to yourself, since if you’re accurate everybody just thinks it was obvious, and if you get it wrong you’re labelled a fraud. Perhaps we just need to rebrand oracles as “metaphysical theorists” that are pointing out structure rather than substance, for as Ruth Hubbard once said, “Every theory is a self-fulfilling prophecy that orders experience into the framework it provides”.

Carrington, Hereward, 1880-1959. Mysterious Psychic Phenomena: Unknown Worlds of Mystery and How They Are Being Explored. Boston: Christopher Pub. House, 1954.
Herodotus, trs. William Beloe. Herodotus. London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1830.