Responses to Ambiguity of Herodotean Oracles


In Herodotus’s histories, the oracles are usually ambiguous. However, from his narratives, it is clear to tell that Herodotus holds oracle-recipients morally responsible for their oracular interpretations, no matter it is correct or not. Although these two commitments seem to be in tension, this thesis will argue in a brand-new view that Herodotus’ responsibility standard is far too strict, given the ambiguity of the oracles. Instead of examining the ambiguity of the oracular texts in isolation, this paper will argue the texts must be considered in an interpretive situation consisting of four sources of uncertainty: the genuineness of the oracle, the disposition of the god consulted, the oracular text itself, and the appropriate response to it. Based on these ambiguities, this paper argues that Herodotus’s characters can take one of two consistent attitudes toward the oracle decision-making process: the attitude of the formidable and controlling who hope to overcome the uncertainty surrounding oracles by making use of their cleverness and power, or the attitude of the religious who hope to understand the oracles from within a structure of piety, good sense, and community integrity.


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