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Herodotus and the invention of history
Herodotus and the invention of history

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3.3 Putting two and two together

While being overjoyed with the oracle’s response, Croesus does follow up on the practical advice that he receives, namely to identify the most powerful Greeks of the time and make them his allies. His search takes him to the newly powerful city of Sparta. How the Spartans attained supremacy over their neighbours is also explored through a pair of oracles. Like Croesus, the Spartans want to launch an attack against a neighbouring power (the city of Tegea); like Croesus, they consult the oracle at Delphi; and like Croesus, they receive the answer they want to hear: the oracle promises them ‘Tegea to dance on with stamping feet and its plain to measure out with rope’ (1.66.2). So, they rush into battle … only to be defeated. As a result, they are forced to measure out the plain of Tegea bound as slaves. Like Croesus, they have failed to discern the oracle’s critical ambiguity and consequently suffer a major reverse.

This map focuses on the Peloponnese area of mainland Greece. In the centre are three settlements close to each other, running north to south in the following order: Arcadia, Tegea, and Sparta/Lacedaemon. To the north, just the other side of the Isthmus of Corinth, is Delphi.
Figure 27 A map showing Sparta and its neighbours, Tegea and Arcadia.

It’s the second oracle at 1.67.4 that you will focus on, since the way Herodotus puts it to use sheds light on how he constructs his narrative. In it, the Spartans learn that they will be victorious only if they manage to retrieve the bones of Orestes, the son of the legendary Trojan War hero, Agamemnon (who was headlined in that passage from Homer which you looked at earlier). The Spartans send out special agents into Tegea to try to locate the site of Orestes’ burial. One of them, a certain Lichas, meets a blacksmith who tells him of a wondrous discovery he’s made – a massive coffin containing an equally massive skeleton of a man (1.68.3).

Activity 13

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes for this activity

This activity puts you in the position of Lichas, who, as he hears about this wondrous discovery, has knowledge of the oracle that has been given to his fellow Spartans. Your task will be to read that oracle for yourselves and to try to work out how it relates to the information Lichas learns from the blacksmith. To help guide your reading, answer the following questions, jotting down some notes to each:

  1. How does the oracle pinpoint the location of Orestes’ burial?
  2. In what terms is the precise location described?
  3. Thinking about the occupation of the person whom Lichas has met, what kind of place do you think the oracle is describing?
  4. If you were Lichas with all this information, what do you think has been unearthed?

Herodotus 1.67.4

There is on the level plain of Arcadia in Tegea a place
Where two winds puff under strong compulsion.
Blow upon blow, woe lies on woe.
There the life-giving earth holds the son of Agamemnon.
Bring him back, and you will be the defender of Tegea.

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You may have noted the following points:

  1. The oracle cites three locations as it homes in on the burial site: the level plain of Arcadia, Tegea, and an unspecified place (‘where’).
  2. This nameless place is described in elusive terms – it’s where winds puff, blows are handed out, and suffering is caused.
  3. A blacksmith’s place of work.
  4. The bones of Orestes.
The picture shows a close up of an ancient Greek oinochoe, which has the shape of a vase. On the main bit of its body are three figures, which stands out as reddish-brown figures against the black glaze of the ceramic. A central seated figure is being attacked on either side by two young men, both wielding swords. The figure on the right (as the viewer sees it) has sunk his sword into the chest of the seated man, who holds his hands out in a vain appeal to stop his assailants.
Figure 28 Aegisthus murdered by Orestes and Pylades. Red-figure Apulian oinochoe (wine jug), about 430–400 BCE. Louvre, Paris, ID: K320.

Don’t worry if you found this task tough or if you didn’t get all these answers. This is an oracle and reading them, as you are learning, is meant to be difficult. Those middle two lines of the oracle, describing a place in Tegea ‘where two winds blow … and woe lies on woe’, are particularly vague and ambiguous – typically oracular in fact. But Herodotus’ subsequent description of Lichas meeting a blacksmith helped me work out that these lines indicate a blacksmith's place of work: the smithy, where a blacksmith would use bellows to stoke the fire (‘two winds puff under strong compulsion’) to such a point of intensity that he could hammer metal into shape (‘blow upon blow, woe lies on woe’). You may have then made the connection to Orestes because of the blacksmith’s discovery of the bones. The skeleton is massive because these are the bones of a hero from a bygone era when (it was imagined) people were bigger and stronger than they are today.

In case we have struggled to make these connections ourselves, Herodotus straightaway spells it out for us:

Herodotus 1.68.3–5

Taking in mind what was said, Lichas made the connection (sumballesthai) to the oracle that this was Orestes. He put things together (sumballesthai) in the following way. He worked out that the ‘winds’ were the blacksmith’s two pairs of bellows; the ‘smiting and counter-smiting’ the hammer and anvil; and the ‘woe on woe’ was the drawn-out iron – inferring that iron’s discovery had been an evil for humankind. Putting things together (sumballesthai) in this way, he went back to Sparta where he declared the whole thing to the Spartans.

The reader here is led through a process of ‘putting together’ (the Greek word sumballesthai is used three times in this passage) the different parts of the jigsaw. When Herodotus related the episode of Croesus testing the oracles, he quoted the Delphi oracle in full, providing not only the answer that Croesus had been looking for but also a two-line summary of its claim to knowledge (1.47.3):

‘I know the number of the sands and the measures of the sea;
              I understand the dumb; I hear who does not speak.’

Knowing the number of the sands; hearing those who cannot speak – these ideas point to an excess of meaning in the oracle’s response that Croesus blithely ignores. As you learned, his inability to comprehend oracular polysemy (something that can mean more than one thing) leads to his downfall. Now, with this oracle given to the Spartans, Herodotus very carefully guides his readers through the analysis of the oracular text – so very carefully in fact as to render the act of interpretation transparent. Herodotus thus uses the ambiguity of oracular discourse to train his reader to read carefully, particularly when it comes to considering issues of power and identity.

A highly stylised military set piece, depicting naked warriors, wearing nothing but helmets, red robes, and sandals, in the setting of a mountain pass. At the centre is a warrior, looking directly at us, with a sword in his right hand and a large shield in his left hand, which frames his pose. Three figures behind him hold out laurels in their left hand to a warrior climbing the rocks on the left of the painting, with a sword in his right hand. Below him a warrior poses with his left arm outstretched and a spear in his right arm. To the right of the central figure is a mass of similarly unclothed warriors, with two trumpeters framing the scene — their long trumpets pointing left over the shoulder of the central figure. In the background, the mountain sides open up to reveal a simple Greek temple (with four front columns and a triangular pediment), a distant valley, and a darkening sky.
Figure 29 Léonidas aux Thermopyles (Leonidas at Thermopylae), Jacques-Louis_David, 1814; Louvre, Paris, ID: INV 3690