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The world’s soothsayer

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For over a millennium, a steady stream of pilgrims converged on Delphi to seek divine direction in matters of war, worship, love or business. On arrival they would pay a set fee (the pelanos), sacrifice a goat, boar or even a bull, and – depending on the omens – wait to submit questions inscribed on lead tablets. The Pythian priestess, a village woman over fifty years of age, would chant her prophecies from a tripod positioned over the oracular chasm. An attendant priest would then “interpret” her utterings in hexameter verse.

Many oracular answers were pointedly ambiguous: Croesus, for example, was told that if he commenced war against Persia he would destroy a mighty empire; he did – his own. But the oracle would hardly have retained its popularity for so long without offering predominantly sound advice, largely because the Delphic priests were better informed than any others of the time. They were able to amass a wealth of political, economic and social information and, from the seventh century BC onwards, had their own network of agents throughout the Greek world.

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