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Michael Wood, The Road to Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles, Chatto & Windus

From the colloquial but near-religious phrase “hole in the wall” to the cybernetic expression “autoteller”, terms for cash dispensers contain a faint memory of oracles and godlike agency. Perhaps they also acknowledge with grim humour the worry that may well follow consultation of this species of half-calculator half smeary mirror, even if anxiety may not actually have preceded the financial stock-take. In Michael Wood’s new book about the significance of classical oracles, he recounts a different echo in such modern day technology. This time it’s a message overheard at an airport, concerning, we learn, one of the major manufacturers of financial software – “Would the Oracle representative please go to the information desk?” Tuning in to the millennia of history in that plea to a lost fortune-teller, Woods adds: “The information desk. Where else?”

There is much playfulness in this easygoing metaphoric walk to Delphi, the navel of the universe. In fact, if there was a belly stud metaphor that could be quietly incorporated within Woods’s nevertheless serious theme, it’s certain he would have found it: he is almost as au fait with the trappings of youth culture as he is with modern critical theory, cinema as text, and, of course, the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and other classical authors. It is the latter from which much of this entertaining meditation on decision-making draws.

And it is decision-making, finally, all consultations with the gods are about. As Woods shows, oracles can speak categorically, though the listener tends to misread or simply ignore the advice (Cassandra, who Woods argues was an oracle of a kind, was fated to have her explicit descriptions of the real but bloody future always disbelieved). More often, for important issues, oracles speak ambiguously and again their listener seems fated to misunderstand them. Croesus consulted one before attacking Persia and was advised that to do so would result in a “great empire being destroyed”. He failed to realise that it was have his own empire that was meant, and, emboldened by what he thought was a sure sign of his victory, marched on to devastating defeat.

This was rather canny of the oracle system – which incidentally involved a great deal of staff to maintain it, being as bureaucratic as any organised church today – in that ambiguity meant that it was usually right, one way or the other. Nevertheless, as Woods emphasises, the gods were believed to exist. You could be angry with them for their cruelty, but not doubt their ability to affect events: it was yourself you would curse, sooner or later, for not doing the right thing. Today, things are rather different. Towards the end of the book, Woods takes his cue from the theorist T. W. Adorno and looks at how modern day horoscopes are regularly consulted by those who enjoy them without really believing them. It is after all rather implausible that the gravity of stars light years away should affect the position of tall dark strangers in your precise vicinity. Still these little daily texts seem to know a bit about you and are almost always encouraging. They are self-help texts that, like the oracle advising Croesus, aren’t really advising: they are listening. This highly enjoyable book also encourages its readers to do that: to listen, critically, to themselves.

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