The Prophet Phrixes

30 Jan

In the year 345 B.C., the Athenian named Phrixes finished his academic studies in philosophy and began what he saw as a new stage of his life.

Enough time spent in the Academy of Aristotle, the rich young thinker told himself. I must find my own unique mission, the destiny meant for me alone. No more mere copying and repetition of the thoughts of teachers and wise men. I must become an independent, original source of credible truth.

Phrixes began to search about for some activity that would make use of his developed talent in dialectical debate and philosophical speculation.

Wearing his most expensive gleaming white chiton, he decided to visit the dominant political leader of Athens, Sinas. This rich, powerful Athenian was a close friend of the young philosopher’s father. He was a man always overflowing with shrewd, thoughtful practical advice. That was exactly what Phrixes now realized he was in great need of.

The tall, lank philosopher with blond hair and lacteous blue eyes was led into the private sanctum of the politico by an elderly house servant.

Sinas, fat and stumpy, waved his visitor to a stool near the writing table at which he himself sat. His dark green eyes closely examined the smooth face of Phrixes before he spoke to him.

“How can I be of aid to you, my son?” he sweetly intoned.

Only after a noticeable pause did a reply come from Phrixes.

“My formal education is at an end, and I am entirely perplexed over what I should turn to next.”

A broad grin broke out over the lower face of Sinas. He seemed on the verge of breaking out in laughter.

“Dear boy, it is when we are uncertain what road to take that it is time to ask ourselves where our dreams and ambitions tell us to go. After all, it is our own hopes and desires that should be the guiding landmark showing us the right path for us to take. Therefore I must ask you what your most precious aspiration happens to be.”

Phrixes thought a moment, deciding that he had to reveal his most personal wish to this mundane politician.

“For a number of years now, ever since I acquired this drive of mine to master the methods of the philosophers, my primary aim has been to create some benefit for my fellow human beings through fresh, innovative thought. But years of hard study have shown me that such a task is not at all an easy one to fulfill. As soon as I imagine some specific goal, further thought disabuses me of seeking it to finality of any kind. I realize the nature of the difficulties and obstacles that stand in the way. Discouragement and disappointment seize hold of my thoughts then.”

“Do not fear to reveal to me what comes into your mind,” urged Sinas.

The young man drew a deep and long sigh. “I have often seen myself as a predictor of what the future holds. Yes, if I could produce auguries and prophecies of my own that could be of practical use to others, that would be my greatest satisfaction and happiness.

“I know how impossible my idea sounds. Human beings are wholly limited, without such a capacity. How would I ever succeed in attaining such a power of discernment? That is only allowed to the oracles, as the one at Delphi. No ordinary man has actual sight into what will be. Remember what Prometheus is said to have done when he taught our ancestors the use of fire?

“The earliest human beings did possess knowledge of the future. They could foresee death and misery moving toward them, but were unable to do anything to avert approaching disasters.

“So, although Prometheus taught men how to cook and stay warm using fire, how to make pottery and bricks, how to work with metals and tools, and how to construct houses, he took away from them all knowledge of the future that they had once had. Humans learned to write and to count, to tame and domesticate animals, and find medicines in nature, but knowledge of what is to come was forever lost for them.

“Thus, our kind were doomed to suffer permanent ignorance and blindness concerning the times that have not yet arrived.”

Once Phrixes fell silent, Sinas let out a single laugh. “Do you believe such a children’s tale, my boy?”

The young man did not reply directly. “However it may have come about, we lack an important variety of knowledge today. That is why people seek the aid of oracles, vatics, and augers of all sorts.”

“If you wish to recover the sight that Prometheus took away from us in the past, you should consult with and ask the help of the priestesses of Apollo at Delphi. A pythoness will surely have valuable knowledge that can assist you in this quest.”

The eyes of Phrixes brightened with hopefulness. “Is it possible?” he inquired.

“You will only know if you go there and try, my son.”

Rising to his feet, the would-be prophet excused himself and left the politician.

An ocean of olive trees stretched below the high cliffs of the Phaedriades mountains.

The Delphi road, winding along the grove of the Pleistos river, led onward to the Sacred Plain.

Phrixes had been advised to seek out the official interpreter of the oracles, the man who served as construer of what was given by the Pythoness within the Sanctuary of Apollo.

His mission here was to talk to and consult with the individual who, for a price, would be able to simplify and unlock the hidden meaning of whatever the oracle proclaimed.

A servant of the sacred hieron led the visitor to the small building where the construer had a tiny cubicle all to himself.

Phrixes entered the dark room after being announced to Zetis, the interpreter of the oracle.

The surprisingly small man in a yellow robe studied the Athenian for awile before addressing him.

“I understand that you wish to learn the secrets of what I do with the oracular statements.”

“Indeed,” confirmed Phrixes, “my purpose in coming here is to learn the nature of prophecies about future time to come. That is a subject that has captured all of my mind and soul.”

Zetis smiled, his brown eyes glowing with an internal flame.

“I am called the interpreter who records what the sacred oracle tells the Pythoness. My task is to translate the enigmatic sentences into simpler, clearer declarations that are much easier to understand. I try to discover the interior meaning hidden behind the puzzling mysteries that seem to be at the heart of the oracular statements.”

“Yes, that is what I am after, the method by which a construer like you operates and interprets,” admitted Phrixes with a calm smile. “That would certainly be of enormous value to me, if you would agree to tell me how it is that you carry out this work of yours.”

The man named Zetis considered carefully for a time before proceeding on.

“From the beginning, there was a need here at Delphi for a person who could answer questions of meaning whenever the Phythoness spoke forth a prediction about what was coming. Apollo himself could not decipher the meaning of the sacrifices burned beneath the very temple of Apollo. Not even the god himself could comprehend what the prophecies in his name were foretelling.

“So what did the divine Apollo do? He begged the wild, mad Pan to serve as the first, original construer, to reveal the significance of each word and symbol of the oracular messages. And it was that divine being, Pan, that the knowledge of how to interpret originated. From the unhinged, savage mind of this creator of music and poetry came to key by which to read the sayings of the oracle’s Pythoness.”

Zetis paused for a moment, taking in great gulps of air.

“Generation after generation, we interpreters pass on the arcane key to the prophecies. If we were not here to serve, no one would be able to find out anything about the future that is coming. That is why I am needed even today. Without me, the oracular statements are all but incomprehensible.”

Phrixes stared at the old man in awe.

“Let me ask you something that is most important to me. Would you be willing to teach me how to interpret what the Pythoness says? Could I become your student, your personal disciple?”

He waited impatiently for what the decision was to be. The course of the rest of his life depended on the answer he received.

“Yes, of course,” beamed Zetis. “As soon as I saw you, I recognized who you were and what your fate was to be. That is the one person meant to follow me, I told myself.

“For years I have searched for the right successor. He has now been discovered and identified.”

Phrixes felt sublime elation from this victory of his.

Several years of intensive learning at Delphi prepared the young Athenian to replace his mentor when he passed away in 340 B.C. He was able to move smoothly into the role of construer to the Pythoness. The judgment of what each prophecy meant now fully belonged to Phrixes alone. He was busy doing his work diligently and successfully when an unexpected visitor came to him for guidance on an oracular matter. It happened to be the person who had first advised him to visit the Sanctuary of Apollo, Sines the politician.

“I need to discover something of major importance from you, Phrixes. But it must happen absolute secrecy and privacy. Can the two of us take a walk down into the valley, away from any possible listening ears?”

The construer said yes and led his surprised visitor down toward the Kastalian Spring. This area lay at the foot of the Phaedriades. The Pythoness would usually come here before going into oracular trance, in order to purify her body, mind, and soul with the crystalline spring water.

Once the two men were comfortably seated on a large marble rock, Sinas began to explain what he was concerned about.

“Here, in this isolated Sanctuary of Apollo, you are unaware of the changing currents of power and politics in the city-states of the Greeks. But there has occurred a great rebalancing of affairs, or perhaps I should refer to it as an unbalancing. No longer are Athens and Sparta the sole major players at the highest level of power and importance. They are both exhausted and weakened by the great losses and expenses of internecine warfare among the Greeks.

“An important new actor has all of a sudden appeared from the north, King Philip of Macedonia. He is leading large, strongly armed forces toward us and threatens to overpower our separate, limited cities. What can we do, though? How can we stop such a threat to our freedom and independence?

“I myself have taken a bold, unprecedented step.

“An invitation has been sent to Philip at my instigation from the city of Athens. We advise him to send someone to Delphi and ask for a prophecy from the Pythoness about the future of his kingdom and his dynasty.

“An answer came from him with haste. Yes, he agrees to send a person to learn what the oracle can reveal for him. Philip is eager to receive divine advice, especially concerning the political course in front of him.

“Of course, whatever he is told will have to be provided with exegesis by the prophetic interpreter. That will be you. The destiny of all the Greek cities is therefore in your hands, my dear Phrixes.”

The latter felt a spinning sensation in his brain. He said nothing at all as the politician continued on.

“There can be no question but that particular interpretations in the past have served to further specific interests of particular persons or communities. By one means or another, certain conclusions have resulted that favor these or those petitioners. The extremely ambiguous, clouded nature of the pronouncements has permitted the slanting and distortion of what the oracle may be saying. In other words, various factors have at times succeeded in making the prophecies say what serves them the best.”

For a time, the two of them stared at each other in complete silence.

But at last, Phrixes decided he had to draw out of the politician exactly what was wanted of him.

“What shall I, then, say to this King of the Macedons when he demands to know the meaning of the oracle?”

“That he must not at all interfere in matters that pertain only to us in the south. No alliances are to be contracted with any of our cities. No part must be taken in any disputes between Greek states. None of his armies are to cross over the boundary in our direction. If they do, their defeat is fated and inevitable. Only ruin shall fall to the Macedons if Philip should intervene in Hellenic politics.”

Sinas looked away, his eyes gazing up the mountain, at the Hieron of Apollo, as he instructed the young prophet as to what he was to tell the monarch from the north.

“If he goes to war against Persia, he will die along with his entire dynasty. His only salvation is to remain at peace on all sides.”

Phrixes suddenly felt faint and dizzy. “That is all?” he managed to say.

“You can phrase it as you wish, in order to make it as consistent as possible with the visions of the Pythoness. It is up to you to construct a convincing interpretation.”

“Is this what a prophet does at moments of decision? Does he create persuasive fictions for his political allies?”

The Athenian politician grinned archly. “That has always been so and will continue until time ends, my son. The art of prophecy is close to what I and others in my craft do in our work. How does it differ?”

Phrixes gave no reply, but started going back up the gorge of the mountain.

In a few days an envoy of the Macedonian king arrived to receive his master’s requested prophecy. This brought the dilemma in front of Phrixes to a head. Day and night he wrestled with the problem of what the Athenian politician had asked him to do. Was the construer to be only a tool of the interest that had appointed him to his post? Must personal integrity be sacrificed to practical ends? The prophetic interpreter feared that he was being required to compromise himself to an extent that would forever taint his image of himself.

The king’s ambassador arrived in Delphi. On the next day, the Pythoness produced a one-sentence prediction while in a trance. This was written down and pondered over by Phrixes. What was he to make out of it? How far did his conscience permit him to tamper with the actual meaning? Was he nothing more than a passive instrument of Sines?

There was no acceptable decision for him except one that he could live with. The message of the oracle had to be the authentic, genuine article. There could be no manipulation of the sense of the crucial enigmatic sentence of the prophecy:

“The sacrificing priest stands at the altar of Apollo, waiting for the bull that was a royal crown.”

That was the arcane, puzzling pronouncement from the swooning Pythoness. How was Phrixes to translate those difficult symbols?

Philip had to be the priest and the Persian king the bull doomed to be sacrificed. There could be no other honest reading of the prophecy. The construer wrote all of this down and ordered a servant to deliver it to the envoy from the northern kingdom.

Phrixes waited with his nerves on edge and highly excited.

He realized that it was impossible for anyone to foresee what was going to result from this prophetic interpreting of his.

The first rumor that reached Delphi was that King Philip had died. The second one that came said that the death had been an assassination. The day after that saw the arrival of Sinas from Athens.

Phrixes realized that the politician was looking at him with scorn and loathing.

“Why have you disobeyed what you were told to do?” shouted Sinas with boiling ire. “It is your responsibility that we were compelled to employ our agent in Philip’s entourage to dispose of him. There was no other choice that you left us, since the king planned to attack the Persians as soon as his forces were ready. Your foolish disobedience forced our hand. So now we have to contend with the young hothead named Alexander. Who can say what he has in mind?”

He glared furiously at the construer, then continued on.

“The deed was done at the wedding of Philip’s daughter, called Cleopatra to the man intended to become his brother-in-law, the King of Epiros, Alexander. We have made attempts to create rumors that the latter was responsible for the murder, angry at Philip for neglecting his wife, Queen Olympias. Besides that sly and clever tactic, we have also tried to cast suspicions on the Persian enemies. Fortunately, our spy was himself killed by the murdered king’s guards. Yet if it were not for your own willfulness, none of this business would have become necessary.

“I have conferred with envoys from all the major Greek cities. We are unanimously agreed that you can no longer remain at the post of official oracular prophet and interpreter. No one at all trusts you any longer. It is tragic, but that is the truth.”

With that said, Sinas turned and made a speedy exit.

Phrixes was surprised to realize that he was smiling at the fate that he had caused to fall upon himself.

I was not meant to be a prophet if that means serving intriguers and schemers.

He suddenly saw his construer’s craft as one of creative imagination that could be easily misused.

The essence of prophecy was more invention than inspiration.

Phrixes vowed never to have anything to do with oracles and their predictions about the future.

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