(State University of New York Press, 2001)
I was a trespasser. I hadn’t trained in Classics, for ancient Greek I relied on a massive dictionary, to collect tales and references I relied in part on a magnificent electronic resource familiar to all Classicists. And yet I belonged. I belonged because both academic training and native temperament allowed me to hear and care for tales, to recognize the impulses and patterns in them and place them in a larger context—call it the human condition. I belonged because the language of symbols and allusion is the language of the Oracle, and in part my language also. I don’t need fixed clarity, I need light. I belonged because I belong to Socrates; he is one of my permanent teachers, the teacher of all inquirers. And he belonged to the Oracle.
The tales are marvels, typically compact, powerful, thought-provoking. They had never been collected and appreciated. “The Oracle at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but makes signs”—so said Heraclitus, who would have known. The Oracle’s words were the very opposite of dogma: they challenged understanding, you had to think. Where the length of tales is concerned, the exception is the extended, majestic tale of Croesus, the sixth-century king of Lydia, who misunderstood a sign, lost his kingdom in battle, and turned toward the Oracle as if to a person, as if in dialogue.
After the book was completed and I looked back, I realized that I had been instinctively exploring the issue of spiritual authority and its reception. Difficult as it was, riddling as it was, the Oracle was a major spiritual authority for centuries in the ancient world. The striving to interpret its sayings and intentions runs parallel to efforts today to grasp the meaning of spiritual teachings and teachers, and to act on whatever meaning is understood. We are all colonists, setting out in unpredictable seas toward unknown destinations. Please, a word from the Oracle.
There was Delphi, and here we are.