The Oracle of Delphi (and ChatGPT)
Spooky prophecies await
“To those who ask for oracles.
Let the God's answer come.”
“The smoke rising from under the tripod affected her brain in such a manner that she fell into a state of delirious intoxication, and the sounds which she uttered in this state were believed to contain the revelations of Apollo”
One of the most human things is to seek knowledge from an entity much wiser than ourselves.
Thus in 2023, the world now has access to a mysterious thing that took years in the making, engineered by the brightest minds. A machine with a vast knowledge that can attempt to answer just about any question we throw at it. It has essentially consumed the sum of human knowledge and art, and can create new works, and answer our questions in ways that at times seem utterly profound.
This oracle we call ChatGPT comes from a very ancient tradition.
Let’s go back in time, though. To an enlightened era and a place filled with philosophy, gods, magic, and mystery. To Greece.
To the Oracle of Delphi.
“the room in which they seat the god's consultants is filled with a fragrance and breeze, as if the adyton were sending forth the essences of the sweetest and most expensive perfumes from a spring” - Plutarch
Delphi, a region in Greece, has mythological roots as the location where Zeus sent two soaring eagles down to fly over and mark the spot of the center of the Earth, or Gaia, the Earth mother.
Thus, you have Delphi, an ancient place of worship of Gaia, Mother Earth, where the “womb” of our planet is located. Humans have occupied the region for about 9,000 years. It remains a mysterious and storied place.
But starting possibly as early as the Mycenaean period (circa 1,600 B.C.), Delphi became associated with cryptic prophecies. Messages from the gods.
And around the 7th century B.C., we find the theme continued in the origins of the famous Oracle of Delphi we know today.
It was the high priestess, the Oracle of the god Apollo, consulted upon for mystical wisdom by the most famous historical figures as well as the general population, for many, many centuries.
Though we must take caution in ancient sources, there are nevertheless around 600 of the Oracle’s stunning answers and prophecies mentioned in the literature from ancient times.
Their poetic beauty and startling accuracy fascinate people to this day.
More on that soon.
What was the Oracle of Delphi?
All kinds of people journeyed from far and wide for a chance to consult the mysterious Oracle of Delphi. They would ask all kinds of questions. Questions about love, questions about politics, predictions of the future. Questions they wanted to ask a god.
And the oracle would answer.
The oracle itself was a woman, sometimes young, sometimes old, called Pythia, who holds the position until death. She sits on top of a tripod seat, which is above a chasm that releases vapors.
How it worked
The seeker would take an arduous journey to Delphi, for the one day of the month (excluding three winter months) when they could seek counsel from the famous Oracle.
When they finally arrived at the temple, they would see in the inscription above the entrance the famous maxims:
“Nothing in excess.”
They must be prepared with an offering (pie or cake of some kind) and then a goat was sacrificed as part of the ritual.
Then, the high priestess herself, aka the Oracle, would bathe in the nude in the Castalian spring and take a drink of holy water.
After that, she would sit upon a tripod stool, and from below would rise the vapors which she would inhale.
After inhalation of the vapors the Oracle would enter something like a Shamanic trance or some kind of seizure and speak the answer to the question.
It’s often told that she would utter incomprehensible gibberish words that were then translated by the priests of Apollo. The answers and predictions tend to be cryptic and poetic.
To give you an idea of what the answer might sound like, here is a recorded example:
"Be on thy guard, I bid thee, against a sounding Hoplites,
And an earth born dragon craftily coming behind thee."
That was supposedly given to the famous Spartan military leader Lysander, who was later killed in battle...
...from behind, by a soldier with a dragon emblem on their shield.
More spooky predictions
In another story, the Roman emperor Nero, who notoriously killed his own mother, was told by the Oracle:
“Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!”
He killed the Oracle for saying it, but was slain by a 73-year old man after a revolt.
In another dark example, Alexander the Great supposedly visited the Oracle hoping to hear that he would conquer the world. But the high priestess refused to give him an answer.
So Alexander dragged her out by the hair until she finally screamed “ἀνίκητος εἶ ὦ παῖ (."You are invincible, my son!") which was all the answer he felt he needed.
It was written that when Socrates visited, the Oracle proclaimed that there was no one wiser than Socrates. However, this was before he had become the famous philosopher.
And Solon, the famous Greek reformer who is remembered as laying the grounds for Democracy, is said to have consulted the Oracle whose answer helped him decide to reject the opportunity of being a tyrant which others were persuading him to be.
The story of the Oracle of Delphi is particularly relevant today.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, with headphones and a sleep mask on, you’ve heard all the chatter about ChatGPT. In the last few months, AI technology has taken a huge leap, and the technology can respond to our prompts in ways we would have though impossible months ago.
As Ross Douthat recently wrote in a column in the New York Times, humans have “a common impulse to the quests: the desire to encounter or invent some sort of nonhuman consciousness that might help us toward leaps that we can’t make on our own.”
But just like the ancient Greeks, our oracle is only as good as our ability to be wise in our judgments. The priests interpreted “messages” that resonated with the seekers in ways that may have changed the course of history.
What we do with our artificial “intelligences,” our oracles, is up to how wise we are with what questions we ask and how we act on the answers.
After all, our AI “large language models” as they’re called, are made up of wisdom already recorded by man, and so much of it comes not from any new technology, but from our ancient ancestors.
More Delphic maxims plus books recommendations
A sample of Delphic maxims:
Know what you have learned (Γνωθι μαθων)
Perceive what you have heard (Ακουσας νοει)
Be (or Know) Yourself (Σαυτον ισθι)
Intend to get married (Γαμειν μελλε)
Know your opportunity (Καιρον γνωθι)
Think as a mortal (Φρονει θνητα)
Control yourself (Αρχε σεαυτου)
Help your friends (Φιλοις βοηθει)
Control anger (Θυμου κρατει)
Exercise prudence (Φρονησιν ασκει)
Love friendship (Φιλιαν αγαπα)
Cling to discipline (Παιδειας αντεχου)
Pursue honour (Δοξαν διωκε)
Long for wisdom (Σοφιαν ζηλου)
Praise the good (Καλον ευ λεγε)
Find fault with no one (Ψεγε μηδενα)
Praise virtue (Επαινει αρετην)
Practice what is just (Πραττε δικαια)
Be kind to friends (Θιλοις ευνοει)
Exercise nobility of character (Ευγενειαν ασκει)
Be impartial (Κοινος γινου)
Listen to everyone (Ακουε παντα)
Do a favour for a friend (Φιλω χαριζου)
Nothing to excess (Μηδεν αγαν)
Use time sparingly (Χρονου φειδου)
Foresee the future (Ορα το μελλον)
Be accommodating in everything (Παςιν αρμοζου)
Speak well of everyone (Ευλογει παντας)
Be a seeker of wisdom (Φιλοσοφος γινου)
Choose what is divine (Οσια κρινε)
Act when you know (Γνους πραττε)
Consult the wise (Σοφοις χρω)
Down-look no one (Υφορω μηδενα)
Use your skill (Τεχνη χρω)
Do what you mean to do (Ο μελλεις, δος)
Praise hope (Ελπιδα αινει)
Speak plainly (Αμλως διαλεγου)
Associate with your peers (Ομοιοις χρω)
Be happy with what you have (Κτωμενος ηδου)
Deal kindly with everyone (Φιλοφρονει πασιν)
Guard friendship (Φιλιαν φυλαττε)
Be grateful (Ευγνωμων γινου)
Pursue harmony (Ομονοιαν διωκε)
Accept old age (Γηρας προσδεχου)
Exercise (religious) silence (Ευφημιαν ασκει)
Do not tire of learning (Μανθανων μη καμνε)
Admire oracles (Χρησμους θαυμαζε)
Full list here
The Oracle by William J. Broad
The Way of the Oracle: Recovering the Practices of the Past to Find Answers for Today by Diana L. Paxson
The Last Oracle by James Rollins