Faith and Fortune: Classics Scholar Liza Maurizio Speaks at Upham Hall

by Evan Doran, Miami University writing scholar & journalism student
February 28, 2018

If you have ever felt a little thrill at a horoscope or a fortune cookie, you have more in common with the Ancient Greeks than you know.

On Feb. 19, Liza Maurizio of Bates College shared her controversial break from decades of traditional scholarship on the Oracle of Delphi—namely, that the Oracle did not conduct her divinations through casting lots. Maurizio followed it with a similarly untraditional suggestion towards studying divination through the supplicant’s experience, rather than through the exact process of the divination ceremony itself. After all, a fortune cookie itself wouldn’t feel right if it came from your local pizza place.

Did the Oracle really cast lots? Perhaps not. 19th-century painting by John Collier

More than 50 people crowded into an Upham lecture hall to hear the talk. Gaggles of students created a pleasant, noisy buzz in the room, swapping class stories and sharing the lecture handout—not enough had been printed for everyone who showed up.

After Deborah Lyons of Miami’s classics department introduced Maurizio and her “groundbreaking work on the Pythia” (the Oracle of Delphi), Maurizio launched into her primary and most controversial conclusions, namely that the prevailing idea of the Oracle conducting her divinations through casting lots is false.

Maurizio’s work rejects a century-old hypothesis associating the Oracle of Delphi with a nearby group of priestesses who supposedly threw stones (alternately, the “pebble maidens”) to decide fates. In addition to this rejection, she presented evidence suggesting that scholars have been misreading the handful of inscriptions often used to prove the Oracle’s divination technique, and that these inscriptions never provide evidence of the Oracle throwing lots.

She then discussed methods of studying divination, concluding that rather than focusing on the outcomes of the prophecy, looking at the process reveals more about the philosophy and dynamics behind it. To draw the horoscope comparison again: looking at what a horoscope says does not reveal as much about horoscopes as looking at the process of how the horoscope is derived and how it is delivered to the reader.

Maurizio also addressed the case of a listener refusing to accept a bad fortune, giving the example of a person flipping a coin to decide between two options, repeating the coin flip until he or she reaches the desired outcome. The coin-flipping diviner’s anxieties and desires for a positive outcome overwhelm the knowledge that the divination has already been completed, and the process is repeated until the diviner receives a satisfactory result.

In a divination ceremony without a limited “yes/no” answer, such as the Oracle’s ceremony under Maurizio’s hypothesis, this repeated action translated to the Oracle continuing the ritual ceremony and revising her prophecies until she developed a vague prophecy that could lead to the supplicant’s desired outcome—but also left room for alternate interpretations.

Drawing on the infamous story of King Croesus of Lydia, Maurizio affirmed that the resulting ambiguity of the Oracle’s prophecies could spawn not just personal reflection but also political turmoil. King Croesus invaded Persia after the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that an invasion would lead to the destruction of a great empire. The king assumed that he would crush the Persians, but instead lost his own empire. Though city-states and ancient Greek leaders knew this story, the Oracle maintained a ceremonial prominence, and served as a major political policy shaper for much of the Classical era.

Toward the end of the lecture, Maurizio compared the act of an ancient Greek consulting the Oracle to a modern person attending a Catholic Mass. This comparison was less about the content of each event than how the holy legacy and dedicated ritual space affect the attendee in both cases. The communal belief in the ritual’s power adds to its persuasiveness, and increases the odds that the attendee walks away in a contemplative state of mind. Though an ancient Greek may have looked at the pageantry of the Oracle’s temple with skepticism, the Oracle’s reputation and the difficulty of traveling to the Oracle’s temple at Delphi would have worked to convince them of the Oracle’s accuracy and begin to reflect on the prophecy the Oracle delivered.

Afterward, Maurizio invited students and faculty to roll dice and compare their results to a classical inscription used for fortune telling. Even with the arbitrary nature of the system evident to all, the results still sparked laughter and disappointment.

If this simple divination method still holds that much power today, it is simple to imagine just how important it was in the past—and makes it that much easier to understand today’s fascination with horoscopes, palm readings and other fortune-telling practices.

Maurizio is an associate professor of classical and medieval studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to a number of scholarly articles, she is the author of Classical Mythology in Context and has written two plays, both of which were performed at the Boston Center for the Arts. Her website address is http://lisamaurizio.com.

The lecture was sponsored by the Miami University Humanities Center and the departments of classics; anthropology; comparative religion; and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.