Monday, 15 September 2014

What Does 'Delphic' Mean?

The Priestess of Delphi
John Crozier (1850-1934)


Adjective. Late 16th century.
[from Delphi (see below).]

Of or relating to Delphi, a town of Phocis in ancient Greece,
especially as the site of a sanctuary and oracle of Apollo;

Resembling or characteristic of the oracle of Delphi;
(of an utterance etc.) obscure, ambiguous, enigmatic.

If you were ever a little uncertain about something in ancient Greece, whether it be when to plant your crops, if it was a good idea to ask out that girl from work, or who you should next assassinate, then the place to go was the oracle of Delphi on the picturesque slopes of Mount Parnassus. There you could avail yourself of the very best divinatory advice, dispensed with cheerful ambiguity by the resident prophetess.

And, yes, as those with the gift like to be, the predictions given at Delphi were notoriously obscure. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Croesus, king of Lydia, who enquired as to whether he should attack the Persians. The oracle replied: "If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed," which is rather like a football pundit saying "Well it could go either way, couldn't it." However, oddly emboldened by the oracle's words, Croesus and his army charged ahead with their attack, only to learn that it was the Lydian empire that the oracle was saying would be destroyed, and not the Persians. Oops!

However, there is a better example. After all, Croesus must have been a bit of a numpty not to realise that that prediction didn't tell him anything, other than that someone was going to lose. The oracle's response to the people of Athens when faced with an attack by Xerxes I, however, was truly perplexing: "Trust in your wooden walls." This was interpreted in one of three ways: that the Athenians should erect literal wooden defences; that 'wooden walls' was a metaphor for ships and so the Persians should be fought at sea; and finally, while still thinking that 'wooden walls' referred to ships, some interpreted it as saying that everyone should just pack up their stuff and leg it (by ship) before the Persians arrive. Interestingly, the Athenians variously did all three, and when the pesky Persians were (temporarily) beaten, they all thought that the prophetess at Delphi had been extraordinarily and divinely insightful.

In modern English, the adjective Delphic has come to mean a person or a statement that is obscure, enigmatic and ambiguous, often deliberately so. Thus, whatever the outcome, it can be said that the prediction was correct (or at the very least not wrong), and Delphic language is thus a favourite of politicians, mystics and practitioners or alternative medicine.

Have you experienced any Delphic advice?

Do please leave your most enigmatic comments in the box below.


  1. Interesting story :)

    I might have something delphic in me - when people ask advice I (might) give it but mention that "you move a piece on the "game" all the others pieces move which can happen in a way you didn't want and might end worse" (so I'd be the delphic with disclaimer ahahahah).

    Sistine Chapel has a painting of the Delphic Sibyl I absolutely adore. And there ended my knowledge about Delphic; but I will investigate more...

    1. You're right, Teresa! I nearly chose that picture for the lead on this post, as it is undeniably beautiful, but in the end I went with Crozier's more modern, sensual depiction.

  2. Wasn't the Oracle a priestess who was a bit intoxicated by a combination of gases seeping out of somewhere nearby? I think you'd be a bit vague if you were off your face on ethylene too, Ed.
    What you'd need is a good dose of echinacea mixed with a solution of 1 part lavender to 18000 parts distilled water. That'll calm your vague sense of unease...

    1. You're right, of course, A.N. Ancient sources said she was probably off her face most of the time, which was scoffed at by early historians, until it was revisited again when someone pointed out that there were gas seeping fissures around the oracle of Delphi. You can see them in the painting by Crozier above.

  3. My wife had a friend named Delphina many years ago. Delphina is the feminine form of the Latin name Delphinus, which meant "of Delphi". Delphi was a city in ancient Greece, the name of which is possibly related to Greek δελφις (delphis) "dolphin".

    How this fits in with the above enigmatic story, is a bit of an enigma.

    1. Apparently, the god Apollo took the form of a dolphin when he founded the shrine at Delphi.