Riddle Me This: Oracles in Herodotus' Histories

Karen A. Gunterman

University of California, Los Angeles

This paper will discuss the riddling quality of oracles in Herodotus' Histories and why ambiguity is associated with oracles.  I will use terms and analyses developed by linguistic anthropologists who study riddles to answer such questions as: (1) What do we mean when we call oracles "riddling"?  (2) What kinds of ambiguity appear in oracles, and how do they work?  (3) What function does the riddling format serve? 

Herodotus often presents an oracle as though it can be deciphered only with special effort, whether or not its meaning actually is obscure.  The narrative of the oracle known as the "test oracle'' provides evidence that Herodotus feels that the riddling format is the proper way to report an oracle: the chronology has been distorted to present the oracle in the order of a riddle and its answer (1.47-48).

I suggest that riddling serves to maintain the proper boundary between divine understanding and what humans can know, a central issue in the Histories.  Man is distinguished from animals by language and nous, but he shares both with the gods.  Since oracles involve both language and the sharing of divine knowledge, they constitute a particular threat to the distinction between human and divine.  Linguists observe that riddles may serve an integrative function when each of two social groups can understand the same statement in two distinct ways appropriate to their respective interests (Hamnett, 1967).  Similarly, the riddling oracles enable gods to interact with humans without contamination.  For instance, a close analysis of the second line of the "test oracle" shows that it will be understood in one way by the temporally-bound mortal, and in another by a god with unlimited knowledge of the future (1.47.3).


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