In ancient times pilgrims made extravagant promises and offerings to the heavens in exchange for something they badly wanted themselves – perhaps a good harvest or a victory in war? The Oracle at Delphi was adorned with the material evidence of such transactions, not least the offerings of Croesus who was prepared to use the wealth of his citizens to fulfil personal ambition.
In the 440’s BCE, Herodotus left us a detailed description of Croesus’ dedications to the Oracle at Delphi over a century earlier. High on the list is a lion of pure gold weighing 600 pounds; this standing on four half-bricks of pure gold each weighing 150 pounds; all atop a pile of 113 half-bricks of white gold (an alloy of gold and silver) each weighing around 120 pounds. Rich as Croesus was, he was mean with it. This heap of gold and silver was the product of a burnt offering made in Lydia to honour Apollo. Some 3000 human victims were sacrificed, and Lydian subjects were strongly encouraged to contribute their own offerings of gold and silver to the pyre.
What did Croesus want? More power, yet more wealth? He wanted to extend his empire over the Greek cities of the coast of Asia Minor, and a favourable pronouncement from Delphi might persuade some Greeks from the mainland to back him against the Persians. He sent to Delphi for advice and here’s what came back. ‘If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire.’ Croesus felt encouraged and he went to war. He misjudged the enemy’s strategy and was ultimately dragged before his adversary Persian King Cyrus the Great, bound in chains.
The Oracle proved right, a great empire was destroyed, but sadly for Croesus it was his own. We all hear what we want to hear.
As we head towards the UK General Election 2019, perhaps it would help to reflect on why we are swayed towards our own choices. Do we truly believe the gold and silver promises laid in front of us by this party or that party? And what kind of society do we really want to live in? In weighing up our voting options we might do well to heed that ancient dictum inscribed into stone at Delphi γνῶθι σεαυτόν – know thyself.