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The Failure of Communication in Herodotus: The Delphic Oracle, Wise Advisers and Elusiveness of Wisdom.

The Failure of Communication in Herodotus: The Delphic Oracle, Wise Advisers and Elusiveness of Wisdom.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Jane Ellen Cathcart. Originally submitted for Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Ashley Clements in the category of Ancient & Classical Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Jane Ellen Cathcart. Originally submitted for Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Ashley Clements in the category of Ancient & Classical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
 Abstract 
This essay analyses the failure of communication in Herodotus’
Histories
 
and discusses how the identification of this failure is important in the audiences’
reception of the work. The misinterpretation of oracles highlights the limits of human knowledge and wisdom, but the failure of communication extends not only between mortals and the divine but also between humans, as wise advisersfail to communicate the importance of their warnings to characters such as
Croesus. The implications of this for the audience’s reception of the work are
important. The failure of educating historical characters should not translate to apessimistic view of what the audience can learn from the
Histories.
Instead, I willdraw parallels between how Herodotus presents the correct interpretation of oracles and the interpretive procedure in which readers of the
Histories
themselves are implicated as they negotiate the challenge of making sense of 
Herodotus’ text.
 By tracing the role of fate in the
Histories
other central concerns soonemerge. In the case of the Athenians, freedom and control over the course of history is emphasised by their correct approach to and interpretation of oracles.
This exposes Herodotus’ strong anti
-tyrannical sentiments and highlights thecentral struggle between liberty and empire. The ambiguous language of oraclesboth requires and stimulates civic deliberation and the attributes of democracyare advocated by the contemplation of oracular meanings in assembly.Herodotus contrasts this with the Persian tyrants who repeatedly fail todeliberate over and decipher oracles. The stereotyping between east and west isat its height while Athens epitomises freedom, but in the final chapter of the
 
Histories
this distinction becomes blurred. Herodotus subtly suggests parallelsbetween Persian and Athenian behaviour, which ensures that the final wiseadvice of Cyrus resounds with the audience. The voice of Cyrus in the epilogueconcludes the
Histories
with a ring structure that looks back to the beginning of Persian expansion. In this sense the structure of the
Histories
emphasises thecentral theme of rise and fall.
 
The Failure of Communication:The Delphic Oracle, Wise Advisers and Elusiveness of Wisdom.
The preceding chapters touched upon the important motif of the failure of communication as Croesus and Polycrates failed to comprehend oracles orwarnings by wise advisers. The ambiguous nature of oracles also has important literary implications for the reader as they are drawn into the same process asthe characters to decipher meaning from prophecies. The transformation of Croesus into a wise adviser for Cryus is significant, as it does not succeed insaving Cryus from a bad end. This illustrates the nature of human knowledge andquestions whether Croesus really does learn through his suffering. If the
Histories
presents a pessimistic view of the process of learning and teaching
what implications does this have for the audience’s interpretation of the work 
?The obscure language of the Delphic Oracle epitomises the difficulty of communication in the
Histories
as both the characters and the reader struggle todecipher its meaning. The consultation of the oracle reflects the communicationbetween the opposing spheres of the human and the divine. The ambiguity of the
Pythia’s response mirrors the superior knowledge of the gods, as they know
what the future and fate have in store for man. Heraclitus describes how the godsdo not directly communicate with mortal
s but ‘show by sign’ or ‘indicate’
1
. Thistype of communication is frequently misinterpreted, as was evident withCroesus, simply because he deduced only what he desired to foresee. Apollomakes it clear to Croesus that the fault for this failure in communication lies withmortals, as it is their responsibility to decipher the oracle correctly (1.91). The
1
Kindt (2006) 37.

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