14 April 2014


Anthony Ossa-Richardson, The Devil’s Tabernacle: The Pagan Oracles in Early Modern Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013
To call The Devil’s Tabernacle a work of specialist scholarship is something of an understatement. It’s a highly specialised study of a highly specialised subject, a revision of the doctoral dissertation that earned Anthony Ossa-Richardson a Leverhulme Fellowship at the University of London, in which he displays an exhaustive familiarity with obscure historical treatises and engages in often rarefied debate with his peers.
I’m certainly not qualified to critique his overall thesis – probably only a handful of people are - so for this review I’ll concentrate on the book’s relevance to areas of ‘Magonian’ interest.

Despite the subtitle, the book isn’t concerned with the pagan oracles plural, but solely the most important of them, the Oracle to Apollo at Delphi. And it’s not about the historical Delphi – Ossa-Richardson candidly admits he’s never been there and has no desire to see it – but how it was perceived in the early modern period, i.e. between about 1500 and 1800, or during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Neither does Ossa-Richardson have much to say about Delphi in the popular or artistic culture of that time. Although there are nods to the inspiration it provided to, for example, Romantic poets such as Byron – particularly through the potent image of its Pythia, ‘the raving princess among her laurels, perched on her tripod above a chasm of rising fumes, babbling out the future to those who had come to consult her’ – he focusses squarely on scholarly views about it. And on today’s historians’ views of those views. He reports a friend’s observation that, in his chosen specialist subject, he isn’t studying a thing, but people talking about a thing. To which he happily adds that it’s even ‘people talking about people talking about a thing, or still further recursions.’ See, I told you it was specialised.

The real point of the study is the way different currents of thought – mainly those grounded in traditional Christian doctrine and the rising humanist scepticism - developed or declined during the period: ‘In tracing the story of [the oracles] presence in Western thought… we trace, from one angle, the aims and fortunes of reason itself.’

Ossa-Richardson begins with a review of the sources that were available at the start of the period: the accounts of classical writers, such as Cicero and Plutarch, and the Church Fathers whose interpretation of those accounts formed the ‘official’ view of the oracles, that they were the work of demons that were silenced by the coming of Christ. (There was disagreement, though, about how immediate that silencing was; while Roman and Greek sources agreed that the Delphic Oracle had been in decline since about 100BC, it wasn’t actually closed down – on the orders of the Christian Emperor Theodosius - until 391AD). In this way, the oracles formed part of a process of early Christianity using paganism, its ‘vanquished antithesis,’ to define itself.

As proof of the reality of demons and the ability of Christians to best them, in the sixteenth century the chief interest in Delphi was the light it was believed to shed on contemporary cases of demonic possession and the efficacy of exorcism. These sections have some relevance for those with an interest in the history of demonology and witchcraft.

During the seventeenth century two other explanations emerged: ‘natural causation’, such as ‘inflamed melancholy and terrestrial exhalations’, and the ‘imposture thesis’ – simple fakery on the part of the priesthood. Such theories generated a heated reaction from Christian traditionalists, since they implicitly questioned some fundamental, even defining, aspects of Christian dogma; for them, the Oracles worked – they really did give valid answers about the future – it was just that they did so through the machinations of Satan or his lesser demons, and to doubt them was dangerous. Debate over the oracles was therefore part of a much wider one between two worldviews.

A chapter is devoted to the ‘landmark exchange’ between the Parisian savant Bernard de Fontenelle, who championed the imposture thesis, and the Jesuit Jean-François Baltus, who maintained the traditional Christian position. Neither side, Ossa-Richardson contends, was really arguing about Delphi, but arguing in favour of the correctness of their worldview. (Ironically, Fontenelle’s position, that the oracles were fraud perpetrated on a credulous population by a venal priesthood, is now the one favoured by the Catholic Church.)

What is refreshing in Ossa-Richardson’s approach is that it is free of the smugness, born of hindsight and sense of historical superiority, that is exhibited by many historians when looking back on past scholarly controversies. He cautions against this ‘presentism’ (‘we must take care not to assume that what is now obvious to us was, or should have been, obvious in 1700’), and shows how today’s academic interpretations of the debate (the people talking about people talking about things) are rooted in modern preconceptions. For example, most modern commentators automatically side with Fontenelle because he expresses a recognisably modern attitude, while Ossa-Richardson shows that many of Baltus’ criticisms of Fontenelle’s reasoning and misuse of his sources were, in fact, perfectly valid. It is a feature of Ossa-Richardson’s approach that he devotes as much attention to those who lost the debate.

By the end of the period the imposture thesis had won the day. However, that isn’t the theory held by today’s historians or anthropologists who, having ‘decoupled’ the oracles from Christian theology, rather see them as performing a vital social function, ‘an integral part of Greek cultural life, and a force for civilising unification, or in some other capacity for moral good, at least at first.’ (As he points out, for modern academics the reliability or otherwise of Delphi’s predictions are simply irrelevant.)

Even here, Ossa-Richardson shows how this view – first proposed in 1748 – didn’t gain ground over the next century for purely objective reasons, but because of political concerns of the day, specifically new concepts of national unity and attempts to keep the peace in Europe through federal assemblies. These idealists saw the Delphic Amphictyony – the Greek federation formed to maintain and protect the Oracle – as a precursor and model, once again imposing contemporary concepts on the classical evidence. As it falls outside the period of his study, Ossa-Richardson’s examination of the development of the modern view in his final chapter isn’t as exhaustive as the rest, rather being a call for more research. So, for me, the story stopped just as it was getting interesting.

Similarly, while Ossa-Richardson notes that Mesmer’s ‘magnetism,’ and the study of psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance, offered new explanations for the oracles, and that they featured in occult reconstructions of history by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and Eliphas LĂ©vi, he doesn’t explore these avenues because they were proposed by ‘amateurs and occultists’ and his study is concern solely with the views of scholars.

The real message that emerges from The Devil’s Tabernacle is that in any period historical debate and analysis is shaped by that period’s concerns and preconceptions; there is always a subjective element in the interpretation of the past, something that is as true of today’s view of the oracles as it was in 1500. -- Clive Prince

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