Throughout Herodotus’ The History, Oracles, and dreams play an important role. While the gods have almost no presence throughout the book, the Oracles and/or dreams are linked to many of the major events. We first encounter the Oracles in Book I, when Croesus asks the Oracles at Delphi if he should attack the Persians, the Oracle replies telling him (in a very ambiguous way) that if he fights, he will destroy a great empire (7. 12).
Unbeknownst to Croesus, the empire he will destroy will be his own. However, this answer from the Oracle is one of the things that convinces Croesus to attack Persia, in a manner jumpstarting the war. It could be that Croesus was always fated to destroy his empire, for the Pythia said, “Fate that is decreed, no one can escape, not even a god. Croesus has paid for the offense of his ancestor” (1. 91). This was important to remember throughout the book. Whether Herodotus believed it or not, the Oracles and Magi believed that one could neither change nor escape fate.
In Book VII, the Oracles tell the Athenians that a wall of wood and Salamis will save Athens. When the Athenians first consulted the Pythia at Delphi, whose name was Aristonice, their demise was foretold. They asked for a different oracle. “My Lord,” they asked, “give us a better oracle about our fatherland; be moved to pity the suppliant boughs with which we come before you, or we will never go away from your shrine but remain right here till we die” (7. 141). The priestess replied: No: Athena cannot appease great Zeus of Olympus With many eloquent words and all her cunning counsel.
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To you I declare again this word, and make it as iron: All shall be taken by foemen, whatever within his border Cecrops contains, and whatever the glades of sacred Cithaeron. Yet to Tritogeneia hall Zeus, loud-voiced, give a present, A wall of wood, which alone shall abide unsacked by the foemen; Well shall it serve yourselves and your children in days that shall be. Do not abide the charge of horse and foot that come on you, A mighty host from the landward side, but withdraw before it. Turn your back in retreat; on another day you shall face them.
Salamis, isle divine, you shall slay many children of women, Either when seed is sown or again when the harvest is gathered. (Herodotus, 1. 141) The Athenians argued about what this meant, whether they will be victorious or defeated at Salamis. Themistocles concluded that, if the oracle referred to Salamis as “isle divine” that must mean that the Greeks would be victorious, because, he argued, it would have been referred to as “O Cruel Salamis” if all of its inhabitants were going to die. He then convinced the men to prepare for a sea battle. The ‘wall of wood’ would be their ships.
The Athenians agreed with Themistocles, if, for no other reason, than his explanation sounded better than that offered by the oracle-interpreters. Hope, they saw, was better than despair. In this instance, the Oracles do offer some idea of what will come, but the oracle-interpreters, whose purpose is to interpret, are essentially ignored. Themistocles heard what was said and picked out a phrase by which he explained the rest of the prophecy. The Athenians believed what they wanted to believe, which was that Salamis would be a Greek victory, and the ships made up the wall of wood to which the Oracle referred.
While the Athenians do not listen to what the oracle-interpreters had to say, they did take to heart what was told to them by the Oracle, and this led to many of the Greek peoples uniting—Argos sided with Persia; Gelon of Syracuse refused to help unless he could lead, thereby offending the Spartans; Corcyra assembled men and ships and went to the war, but sat on the sidelines watching; and Crete refused to join. The united Greece, led by Leonidas, decided to fight at Thermopylae, where Leonidas was killed. However, after this, the war goes to Salamis, where the Greeks, surrounded, battle the Persians, forcing Xerxes to retreat with his army.
Dreams also play a particular role in Herodotus’ The History. Like the Oracles, dreams influence people to make certain decisions. And like the situations with the Oracles, fate also plays a role. These people had these specific dreams because they were fated to make said decisions. The dreams, possibly, were the only ways to convince them, or to ensure that fate run its course. So was the case with Astyages, who dreamt of his daughter, Mandane, “making water so greatly that she filled all his city and flooded…all of Asia” (1. 107). Astyages immediately went to visit the Magi who were dream interpreters.
Fearing that this meant she would have more powerful offspring, he married her, not to a Mede, but to a lesser, Persian man. However, fate would not back down. After his daughter was married to the Persian, Astyages had another dream. “…It seemed to him that out of his daughter’s privy parts there grew a vine, and the vine shaded all Asia” (1. 108). Astyages again went to dream interpreters among the Magi, who suggested that this dream meant that Mandane – who was now, in fact, pregnant – would have a child who would become king in the place of Astyages. This is the point in the story where fate really comes into play.
Much like the story of Oedipus, attempting to control or otherwise act in a way opposed to, fate seems to be exactly what allows for fate to run its course. Astyages takes the child, a son, when it is born and hands him over to a kinsman, Harpagus, and orders Harpagus to kill the child. Harpagus agrees, but cannot bring himself to do such a thing. Harpagus, in turn, hands the child over to Mitradates, a slave herdsmen of Astyages. Harpagus also passes on the task of murdering the child. When Mitradates gets home with the child, he tells his wife, Cyno, the task with which he had been charged.
Cyno, however, had given birth that day to a child who was stillborn, and she suggested that they place the dead child on the mountain to ‘die’ and raise Mandane’s child as their own. This way, they still get to raise a child, and the innocent boy is not killed. By removing the child from his mother, and handing him over to his death, Astyages is creating the path for which the foreseen future can now happen. One day, the boy was playing with children in town and they named him their king, and he reprimanded one of the children, a son of a man of higher rank than his herdsman father.
They were all brought before Astyages, and this is how he came to learn that the boy had not been killed. When the Astyages learned that the boy, who would be called Cyrus, but was not yet at this time called Cyrus, was still alive, at first he was angry with Harpagus, and he killed Harpagus’ son and fed his flesh to Harpagus. Then, after consulting with the Magi, he believed that the dream had already come true, since the boy was named king. “As it is,” the Magi told him, “the dream has issued in something trifling; we are ourselves quite confident and bid you be the same.
So send the boy away from your sight to the Persians and his parents” (1. 120). When Astyages sent the boy away to live with his true parents, Harpagus watched him grow into a man, and when Cyrus was a young man, Harpagus sent him a message, suggesting that he overthrow Astyages, for he [Astyages] had ordered Cyrus’ death. Had it not been for himself and the gods, Harpagus argued, Cyrus would have been murdered when he was an infant. In this way, the dream explained by the Magi came to be fulfilled. In Book VII, Xerxes dreams of a man coming to him and reprimanding him for his indecision. Are you changing your mind, Persian, and will not lead your army against Greece after you have bidden the Persians to gather their host? ” the man asks Xerxes. “You will not do well, so to alter your counsel, now will he who stands before you prove forgiving. As you have resolved by day to do, that is the road for you to tread” (1. 153). Thomas Harrison, in his book, Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus, argues that misinterpretation of the Oracles was the rule, rather than the exception. Harrison essentially discredits the oracles because they are so ambiguous. Not only do such instances of mistaken interpretation reinforce…the fated nature of the eventual outcome, but at the same time they supply their audience with the tools to explain apparent non-fulfillment: the story of Croesus serves to illustrate both the possibility of fulfillment against one’s expectations and…that of dormant oracles, long forgotten, being fulfilled nonetheless. ” To a point, this makes sense. The Oracles are constantly, it seems almost intentionally, ambiguous, and the message is almost always misinterpreted, often times to the listener’s detriment.
The Oracles and dreams play a crucial role in Herodotus’ The History. The book is driven mostly by reactions to things either heard from an Oracle, or experienced in a dream. Sometimes trying—unsuccessfully—to change what was foretold, and sometimes trying cause what is believed to be the meaning. Fate, however, has run its course. No matter how many times someone tried to change what was prophesied, whatever they did to change it just ended up being the cause of that which was trying to be avoided.
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