Circa 550 BC King Croesus of Lydia began to fear the expanding power of the Persians under King Cyrus. Aware of Cyrus’ desire to gain influence at the expense of the Lydian Empire, Croesus determined he should go on the offensive and nip the Persians in the bud before they became a real threat.
Croesus had a lot to lose. His empire was fabulously wealthy, having pioneered the first gold and silver monetary system. Guarding such a huge hoard of treasure could not be left to chance. Being the superstitious kind Croesus decided to consult the oracles before he attacked, but being also of a scientific bent he ran an experiment to see which oracle’s forecasts are accurate. So he sent his messengers to eight oracles and told them to wait one hundred days before asking each oracle what Croesus was doing on that day in Lydia.
Just so that the answers would be meaningful, Croesus made sure that he did something really strange on the 100th day. That way an obvious answer like, “Mightly Croesus is eating his lunch before an afternoon nap,” wouldn’t accidentally turn out to be true. On the hundredth day, Croesus made turtle-lamb soup! The whole list of ingredients is lost to history, but basically he chopped up a turtle and a lamb and boiled them together in a bronze pot. I assume turtle-lamb soup was an uncommon dish in Lydia at the time (and ever since).
Of the eight oracles only the oracle at Delphi got the answer right. His own oracle at Lydia probably said something like, “Croesus will see a turtle fall from the sky on a lamb’s head,” and some other oracle may have said, “Nay, I see a lamb grazing on the back of a giant turtle.” The Delphi pundits, however, nailed it: “Croesus will be eating strong-shelled turtle seething in bronze with the flesh of lamb.” So the Delphi think tank got the job of deciding whether or not Croesus should attack Iran.
It turned out that outside the kitchen, the oracle was a quite a bit less specific. Instead of saying something like, “Croesus will run his sword through Cyrus in a turtleneck sweater made of lambskin,” they said that if Croesus made war on Cyrus he shall “destroy a great empire.” So Croesus happily went to war with Cyrus and it turned out the great empire he managed to destroy was his own. Score one for the Delphi think tank! If they had TV back then these geniuses would surely have been invited to all the news shows.
Above: "Pythia," Ceramic by Anne Russel (Pythia was the priestess at Delphi)
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