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PAGING THE ORACLE: INTERPRETATION, IDENTITY AND PERFORMANCE IN HERODOTUS' HISTORY

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 April 2006

ELTON BARKER
Affiliation:
Christ Church, Oxford
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In his early Byzantine Chronicle, Johannes Malalas fills out the figure of Cyrus, Croesus' silent antagonist in Herodotus. While Croesus is consulting the Delphic oracle, Cyrus enjoys a quite different divine audience:

And the prophet Daniel came to the King of the Persians, Cyrus. And Cyrus says to him: ‘Tell me, am I going to conquer Croesus King of the Lydians?’

When the Christian prophet hesitates, Cyrus throws him to the lions – only swiftly to repent. Daniel returns the favour by confirming that Cyrus will defeat Croesus because God breaks the ‘might of kings’. Malalas' version of divine counselling clearly draws on Christian moralizing traditions; but it also flags up the confrontation between the powerful king and the word of god in Herodotus' narrativisation of Croesus' downfall. At the same time, however, it offers a radically different interpretative model. Here we don't just have a Croesus consulting the oracle and failing to comprehend it; Cyrus is told what will happen – and why – by the prophet Daniel! From Croesus (mis)reading the oracle to Cyrus receiving instruction from God, narrative dynamics have undergone a fundamental shift. It's now the gospel…

Scholarship on Croesus testing Delphi, and on oracles more generally, has tended to focus on reconstructing the ‘original’ oracular texts and assessing Herodotus' role as a historian (in the modern sense of the word) in the light of how accurate his record is deemed to be. Notwithstanding the fact that such positivist approaches to historical writing have been challenged and that recent studies have been far more nuanced, the oracles themselves remain the focus of investigation. In tracing their ‘changing representations’ I want to look exclusively at how they function within Herodotus' narrative.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Classical Association 2006