Michael Wood, author and professor of English, is a clever fellow. When I
picked up this book I had no idea where it could lead, to Delphi, or far
beyond. It goes just about everywhere, with humor, intellect and prodigious
feats of literary mix and match.
Let's assume you know very little about oracles. Therefore you, like me,
will be expecting a treatise on Greek thought and religion. We are quickly
steered away from that limited field to a much wider vista. Let's suppose that an oracle might mean any being or mechanism that a person
consults, from whom or which he expects an answer that can be used a guide
for future action and contemplation. Wow! Suddenly we're in a whole 'nother
place. From here we can go almost anywhere -- to pop astrology, to
Shakespeare, to the movies.
Wood delves into the mystery of memory: do we remember the past as it
happened, or do we alter it subtly to fit the future, and thereby attribute
to ourselves or others a prescience that was never intended, or never
existed? It's a great question, but few people could have written a book
about it because it's so slippery as to elude the grasp of all but the most
determined. Reading The Road to Delphi is like trying to work a complex
brainteaser - sometimes you just get tired of trying to understand it.
Then you just read on.
Woods writes, in reference to the proposition that "Greek gods are powers,
"Things are not either fixed or not fixed, they are both. But
the views are both not true at the same time, and once Zeus has taken on the
very different forms of knowledge of Themis and Metis, mere humans can never
know which aspect he will show at any given time, which card he will choose
to play." Even Wood must exuberantly refer to this as "sleight of
Regarding newspaper astrology, Wood takes us on another little ride - the
astrology dealt out in daily columns first reflects reality, then distorts
it, then confirms it by its very distortion. We are told we must be happy,
which is sensible, but as we imagine that we are happy in order to "follow"
our horoscope, we confirm the prediction that we will be happy. Wood
declares, in a Wood-ian ecstasy: "I read horoscopes now because I love the
ruses of rhetoric on display in them, the disciplined appearances of saying
something when saying nothing much, or perhaps nothing at all."
Wood asserts that oracle-stories are almost true, and we can make them true
through our actions - by affecting the future to affirm the prediction; or
through memory alteration, adjusting the past to make it seem to have been
an accurate prognosis of future events.
In ancient societies, when lines between human and superhuman were more
blurred and animistic, the character of the sybil was a useful projection.
She served as that piece of our mentation that allows us to think we think.
Using her predictions, baleful as they usually seemed to be, we could order
our lives in a framework almost rational, but still connected to prethought,
the unquestioned belief that the future can be foretold, that the gods can
be consulted and will answer our prayers, however trivial.
Literature, and the archetype of folk memory is full of people who either
did or didn't "listen" to their oracle. Oedipus, for heaven's sake - he
kept trying to jump between accepting and bewailing his fate, accepting and
indulging in his fate, and refusing to accept his fate and trying bravely to
act as though he had no predestiny. Macbeth was in a similar dilemma: if
he blindly and merrily believed the witches, he would be a happy man - or so
he thought he thought.
But, in the end, the Fates always win. They can do so by stretching their
truth, coming up with a catch that makes the prophecy come out right.
Macbeth was defeated by a man not born of woman -- how can this be? Well, he
didn't figure on being defeated by a guy who from his mother's womb had been
untimely ripped -- but such was the twist to the witches words that allowed
them to come out on top.
Wood has dished up a banquet for thought. The read is fun and fast-paced,
and highly recommended.