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The Importance of the Oracle of Apollo

“His fire! – sears me, sweeps me again – the torture!

Apollo Lord of the Light, you burn, you blind me – Agony!” (Aeschylus, 1984, p. 154).

These are the words, spoken by Cassandra in The Oresteia. She has already suffered very much for betraying Apollo and allowing herself to be kidnapped and raped by Agamemnon. The Olympic god punished her for the treachery in a very cruel way: all her predictions come true, yet nobody wants to pay attention to them, thinking that she is insane. The ancient myth and Aeschylus tragedy gave rise to the expression Cassandra warning. Moreover, the word Cassandra has transformed from a proper name to a common noun, which denotes a person, who always speaks the truth and predicts accurately, but there is no one, who pays any attention to them or takes his or her predictions seriously. To a certain degree, we can even say she has become an archetype, which means that such a person can exist in any society and at any time (Berens, p. 75).

As regards Apollo, it should be mentioned, that he is considered to be one of the greatest and most worshipped Olympic gods; thus, his oracles were very influential and powerful. They were asked questions by common people who sought guidance or probably some advice. Nevertheless, the underlying cause of the oracles power was the belief that he or she could see the future and prevent mortals from dangerous traps or mistakes. Seekers of the oracle made pilgrimages to the place, where Apollo’s priest lived (usually in some cavern, often near volcanic action or else in a temple) and brought rather expensive gifts, which the oracle would keep, since the god of light, Apollo, did not need them. A temple would always be built where the oracle lived because he or she was the mouth of the deity to the people. It was almost always a female, who had to be a virgin (Berens, p. 80). Apollo fell in love with Cassandra when she was very young. He gave her the gift of prophecy and made her his priestess. It should be borne in mind that she was a princess, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Cassandra did not return the love of Apollo, which was certainly a very audacious deed, yet she became his priestess anyway. The person, who has once given a promise to the Olympic god, must always remain faithful to him, but Cassandra broke this promise when she allowed herself to be taken and violated by Agamemnon. In revenge, Apollo cursed her by making it so that nobody would ever believe her prophesies. Her punishment had to be terrible, knowing the future and being helpless to prevent it (Aeschylus, p 148). She turned into a living proof that the wrath of Olympic gods is terrible. In this respect, we can say that the myth of Cassandra illustrates the attitude of ancient Greek society to the deities, namely that their relations were primarily based on fear of their punishment.

The epigraph to this essay is taken from the tragedy Agamemnon, the first play in a trilogy by Aeschylus. The author was inspired by the epic poems of Homer (The Iliad and the Odyssey), and he developed the story of Troy by creating this play about the fate of Cassandra, King Agamemnon, Queen Clytemnestra and Orestes. The works of Aeschylus give deep insights into the inner world of the main character. The author shows that internal or spiritual suffering 1can turn the life of a person into a living nightmare, though it may not be noticeable to other people. Cassandra has been asked why she did not suffer from Apollo’s wrath and she explains that she suffers more than anyone, because she is helpless to prevent the tragedies she predicts, since nobody ever believes her (Aeschylus, p 150). The major problem is that no one feels any compassion or empathy for this character. Cassandra is alien to these people, they do not see her tragedy, and think that she is just a slave woman, who has no gift of prophecy, otherwise, their attitude towards her would have dramatically changed.

Aeschylus illustrates the attitude of ancient Greeks toward the Olympic gods; they portrayed them as very powerful but vindictive deities. Occasionally, it seems that anyone who offended the gods would be cursed and that curse would be carried for generations. Sometimes, it is not easy to follow the storyline, because the tragedies constantly revolve around revenge. In addition to that, almost all of these stories begin somehow with an insult or injury to a god or goddess. In this case, Apollo is the one insulted, because it was simply unbelievable that any mortal woman could resist his love and later abandon his temple.

Oracles performed several functions in the culture of ancient Greece and especially its literature. Many plays were written about the oracles prophesies and the reaction of the mortal people. One of the most famous examples is Oedipus, the King, who is born cursed; it seems that each step, which the protagonist makes, only contributes to the fulfillment of the prophecy. His father, Laius knows he is cursed, and that the curse will fall upon his son. So he vows never to have any children, and he tries not to by staying celibate. However, he is foolish to believe that he can sleep with his wife and not touch her. So Oedipus is conceived. The father decides to slaughter Oedipus but Olympic gods do everything to fulfill the prophecy: the child is sent out with some servant to be killed, but the servant takes pity upon the child and gives him to a shepherd who, in his turn, sends the infant to the King of Corinth. Thus, Oedipus survives only to prove that he is doomed. In fact, the oracles prophecy is often described as self-fulfilling, which means that the main characters could have easily averted the tragedy, if they had paid no attention to the oracles words (Berens, p. 269). Their attempts to disprove the prediction only make it come true.

To prove this statement, we should look closely at the development of the plot. Oedipus grows up thinking that he is the son of the King and Queen of Corinth. When the oracle of Apollo predicts that he will kill his father, marry his mother and beget incest children by her, he vows never to return to Corinth to prevent this prophecy from coming true. Like his father, King Laius, Oedipus is too proud and does not ask the oracle’s advice after the first dire prediction. So he never finds out until way too late that he is Laius’s son. In addition, both men had one more chance at the crossroads where they met. It is strange that Oedipus did not simply vow never to kill; this might have possibly saved him. However, his pride makes him stand his ground when Laius wants to cross the pass first because he was a king. Since he was with only a very small escort, Oedipus takes him to be a commoner and refuses to move out of the way. So he kills his father because he has to prove his superiority. The ancient myth and Sophocles tragedy indicate that there were certain points at which Oedipus could easily avert the tragedy, yet his pride and sometimes his arrogance turns him into a mere puppet of gods.

Of course, he continues to Thebes and marries Laius’s widow, his mother, and his father’s children by her. Oedipus has one more chance to avoid total disaster when the blind prophet, Teresias speaks the words of the oracle, but Oedipus is again too proud and dismisses the seer. By the end of the play, Oedipus’s queen and mother have committed suicide and he has blinded himself with her jewelry pins. At the end of the play, Oedipus is a blind beggar wandering in the wilderness, his wife is dead and his children are cursed. Sophocles tragedy is full of rather a cruel irony, for example, Oedipus is firmly convinced of his rectitude and thinks that Teresias, a blind man cannot know the truth, but actually it is he, who is blind, his pride does not let him see the real state of affairs (Sophocles, p. 88).

It is clear from my readings and from the plays I have studied that the Greeks had a rather strange relationship with their gods. They saw the gods as immortal humans with almost unrestricted power, but they did not see them as especially wise and certainly not as forgiving. In fact, they seem to have been quite entertained by the antics of the gods and goddesses. They were afraid of them, but they also laughed at them. The stories never portray the gods as virtuous; one may even say that ancient Greeks are slightly ironic about them. Sometimes the gods behave unworthy of peoples worship. In a way, Apollo’s reaction to Cassandra’s lack of love for him is quite childish. It is impossible to make someone fall in love with you. In this case, compulsion is utterly useless.

Greek life seems to have revolved around the beliefs in gods and goddesses who were powerful and immortal. The Greeks believed that the gods could do wonderful or terrible things, depending upon how they liked you. Apollo was hurt by Cassandra, so he cursed her. Oedipus was cursed before he was born. Ancient heroes were forced to be puppets that were destined to please the gods. In case of disobedience, they would fail miserably: they would be punished for assuming that they could know the gods and their intentions.

I am not surprised that these plays are study subjects. They are very complicated and it seems that many ancient writers explored similar themes, but from different perspectives. The problems, analyzed by Sophocles and Aeschylus will always remain vital because the ability of a human being to struggle against some overwhelming force like for example Olympic gods will always attract the attention of philosophers and writers.

Bibliography

  1. Aeschylus, Robert Fagles, William Bedell Stanford (1984). “The Oresteia” Penguin Classics.
  2. E. M. Berens (2003). “Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome: The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome”. Kessinger Publishing.
  3. Sophocles, Ruby Blondell (2002). “Sophocles: the Theban Plays: Antigone/King Oidipous/ Oidipous at Colonus” Focus Publishing/R Pullins Co.

Footnotes

1 Aeschylus, Robert Fagles, William Bedell Stanford (1984). “The Oresteia”

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