The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change, Part Two

The second installment of a ten part series which considers the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo…

by: Arthur Hoyle

Read Part One Here!

Part Two : Oracles, Prophecies, and Signs — The Search for Certainty

Human beings, faced with mortality like other living things, wanting to ensure their safety and survival, try to build their lives around certainties that give them protection, or at least the illusion of it. Some of these “certainties” — like citadel walls and anti-ballistic missiles — are physical. Others — like religious beliefs and political credos — are ideological.

Science, with its grasp of physical laws that control matter, gives us certainties. Copernican theory tells us that the Earth is orbiting the Sun, and will continue to do so for a long time, year after year. Newton’s laws tell us that there is such a thing as gravitation, and that gravitation is a controlling principle of the universe on which we can rely. These “laws” are in fact predictions that certain patterns in nature will repeat for the foreseeable future.

But science, as we think of it in the West, is a tool developed relatively recently in human history. It began with Aristotle and the early Greeks in the fourth century BC. For many thousands of years before there was “science” (called “natural philosophy” until the 19th century), there was magic. Humans attempted to explain and control natural phenomena through religious rituals, such as human sacrifice to placate gods who controlled weather and therefore food supplies, and through magical interventions that, they believed, gave them control over the mysteries of nature. Both science and superstition answer a deeply felt human need for certainty. Certainty gives us the ability to predict what will happen in the future and so to make plans.

There were numerous systems of pre-scientific prediction employed by the peoples of the ancient world. The most notable and widely used methods were oracles and astrology, though divination based on signs and omens—the flight of birds, comets, eclipses — interpreted by seers were also commonly used. Perhaps most famously, the Roman seer Spurinna, after studying the entrails of a sacrificed animal (a practice known as haruspicy), warned Julius Caesar to “beware the Ides of March,” the day (March 15, 44 BC) on which Caesar was stabbed to death at the Roman Senate by sixty conspirators.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, oracles were distributed over a broad geographic area encompassing Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. The oracles were consulted by ordinary men bringing questions about their business, health, and family, as well as by rulers seeking to know in advance the outcome of military campaigns. The oracles were housed in temples dedicated to a god who spoke to consultants through various mediums who often answered in riddles or ambiguous pronouncements open to wide interpretation. The oracles were an essential means of allaying doubt and uncertainty, and no one would risk an important undertaking without seeking reassurance from a spokesperson for a deity.

Consultants brought votive gifts to gain access to the oracle — modest gifts, perhaps an animal, from simple folk — lavish offerings in gold, bronze, and silver from the mighty. This practice made the oracles a thriving business that enriched the priests who guarded the oracle and summoned it. Legend has it that the fabulist Aesop was murdered by the priests of Delphi because he ridiculed them as hucksters profiteering from the fear and gullibility of their consultants.

According to Herodotus, oracles originated in Egypt during the fifteenth century BC. Dodona was the oldest oracle in Greece, established in the thirteenth century BC in Ioannina, near what is now the Albanian border. The oracle at Dodona was an oak tree through which Zeus spoke by rustling the leaves. Priests attended the consultant as the leaves murmured and interpreted their meaning. Around 400 BC a temple was built beneath the canopy of the tree. The oracle supported the priests and priestesses who lived nearby in a village.

The most famous oracle in Greece, and the richest, was located in Delphi in a temple dedicated to Apollo, the god of prophecy who had tried to sleep with Cassandra. The first temple was built in the seventh century BC and came to rival the Parthenon in size as it grew.

Apollo spoke through a Pythia, a priestess named for a dragon that Apollo slew as it guarded the sanctuary. The Pythia was a peasant woman at least fifty years old who was a ward of the priests. She spoke only once a month, on the seventh day. Consultants waited in long lines for an audience with the Pythia, putting up at inns in the town of Delphi as they waited their turn. Wealthier consultants might bribe the priests to shorten their wait.

Before speaking, the Pythia purified herself by bathing naked in the Castalian Spring on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. She then positioned herself on a tripod concealed behind a screen and inhaled the fumes from burning plants that drugged her. The consultant, also drugged, asked his question from the other side of the screen, and received a babbling, incoherent answer that the attendant priest translated. Astonishing as it may seem, this sham was solemnly swallowed by some of the mightiest men in the ancient world.

Croesus was a wealthy king who ruled in Lydia, Asia Minor, during the sixth century BC. Before he undertook a military campaign against the Persian King Cyrus, Croesus desired to know the outcome. He decided to test the major oracles by sending ambassadors to them simultaneously to ask the question, “What is King Croesus doing today?” The oracle at Delphi replied that the king was cooking a tortoise with lamb’s meat in a bronze cauldron. This was the correct answer, and only the Delphic oracle pronounced it. Trusting the wisdom of the oracle, Croesus sent lavish votive gifts to Delphi as he sought a prediction for his war against Cyrus. The oracle gave the ambiguous answer, “If you wage war against Cyrus, a kingdom will fall.” Croesus took this fortune-cookie answer as a prediction of his success. He invaded Persia, was defeated at the Battle of Thymbra in 546 BC, and taken captive by Cyrus who, some say, burned Croesus on a pyre.

Alexander the Great also consulted oracles over the course of his military career. Before embarking on his campaign to the east in 336 BC, Alexander consulted the oracle but was rebuffed by the Pythia, who told him to come back later. Not one to cool his heels, Alexander dragged the Pythia from her sanctuary by the hair, whereupon she declared that he was invincible, a tactful reply that told Alexander what he wanted to hear.

But how did the Delphic oracle know that Croesus was cooking a meal? The priests used a secret network of informants to obtain information that could be passed to the Pythia, whom consultants believed was shielded from all contacts with the outside world. Since the Pythia only spoke once a month, there was ample time for priests to learn a consultant’s question and then retrieve the answer. It is believed that informants at King Croesus’s court used carrier pigeons to send a message to Delphi describing the king’s culinary plans.

The oracle could also be bribed to provide the answer that the consultant preferred. Politicians made use of this corruption to buttress their policies and sway public opinion. When the Athenians faced an invasion of the Persians led by Xerxes, the Delphic oracle warned them of impending doom and urged them to flee. Themistocles, an Athenian general, believed that the Greek naval fleet, though greatly outnumbered by the Persian armada, could prevail if the engagement were fought in a narrow sound that would give strategic advantage to the smaller, more nimble Greek ships. He bribed the oracle to predict the success of the strategy and was rewarded with victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.

Oracles continued to speak in the Roman period, but were phased out when Christianity took hold as the official state religion. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel replaced the pagan predictors. The Pythia at Delphi became silent during the reign of the Emperor Julian (AD 361-363 ), and the oracle was demolished in AD 398 by the emperor of Byzantium.

Why did some of the finest minds in the ancient world, including Herodotus, Sophocles, Pindar, and Aeschylus, give credence to oracles through their writing? Plutarch even served as a priest in the oracle at Delphi during its Roman period, and must have participated in its frauds. The answer may lie in our need for certainty. To live in a constant state of uncertainty about the future is to live with perpetual doubt that can give rise to anxiety, an unpleasant emotion that makes living in the present moment difficult. Prophecy is a form of reassurance. Even if a prophecy is unfavorable, it eliminates the paralysis of doubt and facilitates planning and adaptation. It is not surprising that people prefer the illusion of certainty to the realities of uncertainty. Certainty is comforting. Just ask Croesus.

To Be Continued


Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.


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