In almost every dimension of human society, whether in love or war, politics or the weather, improving our understanding of what the future has in store confers an advantage, and since the very earliest times we have been trying to peer over the horizon by one means or another to get a glimpse of tomorrow before the sun rises. Now, while scientists, economists, web-gurus and virologists around the world try to figure out how to safely move the human race on from this state of social and economic hibernation, we are all in the business of guessing what comes next.
We have long sought to protect our families and ourselves, our flocks and crops by anticipating and where possible, influencing the future in our favour. From the earliest times our ancestors were interpreting cloud formations, the behaviour of birds (augury) or other signs in the natural world as predictors of what lay ahead and in Ancient Greece, the pilgrimage season exactly coincided with the sailing season and these seafaring people were prepared to travel to get answers.
Thought to date from a pre-classical cult around Gaia, the primal goddess of Mother Earth, the Oracle at Delphi arose around 1400 BCE and was later dedicated to Apollo. Known as the ‘omphalos’ or belly-button of the world, it attracted pilgrims all year round and from across the ancient world for around 1800 years before finally being put out of business in the 4th century by Theodosius the Great.
The supposed impartiality of the priestess, known as the Pythia, through whom the oracle conveyed its answers, meant that the oracle was in great demand amongst warriors and statesmen faced with decisions about when to go war or agree a truce. Theories abound about how the Pythia entered her trance-like state, but her prophecies represented the intuitive rather than the rational and it was this which was valued by even the most powerful or most enlightened thinkers in the land.
Plato himself was a huge fan of the oracles of Amun, Delphi and Dodona and insisted that the religious life of his ideal city be based on their instinctive revelations, even though his philosophical system was based on reason and science. By contrast, modern day economists might have us believe that the rational principle of ‘market forces’ should be allowed to shape society, but here we all are, locked in our homes thanks to a viral pandemic which threatens to destroy the world economy, and perhaps a large part of the human race.
I’m not suggesting that we, or our leaders, travel to Delphi to look for answers to the current situation, but it has to be said we might learn something from the humility of the leaders and philosophers of ancient Greece, who recognised that not all answers could be derived from rational deduction. We applaud the scientists looking for a cure, we applaud the web-gurus developing contact tracing apps, we applaud the economists looking to mitigate the damage. But perhaps it’s also time we tapped into our own instincts and allowed ourselves to imagine a different kind of future?
We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves is now available for shipping.