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February 28, 2018

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

by Evan Doran, Miami University writing scholar & journalism student

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, Lisa
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.

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

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

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
and has
written two plays, both of which were performed at the Boston Center for the
Arts. Her website address is

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.

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