When I was in my early twenties, I visited a fortune teller. I entered her room sceptical; I left it… intrigued. To this day, this intrigue permeates my stories, in the form a soothsayer character in each novel who attempts to guide the heroine on her path in life. These philosophical characters are fascinating to write, because they demand that I research the traditions, beliefs and superstitions of a particular culture and their ‘wise person’, be it a shaman or witchdoctor, a philosopher or gypsy.
For my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, I created the character Delia:
Damian and Oriel came out of the cave and, just as they were going to move off to continue their climb, they saw crouching on a step a shrivelled hag – a gaunt, forbidding figure with a hooked nose and parchment-brown skin. Tousled grey hair, like that of a Skye terrier, hung over her forehead, half concealing a pair of coal-black eyes. She stood up as Damian and Oriel approached, scrutinizing them, and barred their way with a claw-like hand. She was much taller and stronger-looking than she had appeared when seated, and it was as if her presence suddenly seemed to take up the whole of the island: the sky, the rock, and the surrounding sea.
Delia is known on the island of Helios as ‘the Oracle’. Upon meeting Damian and Oriel, she is compelled to warn them of what is to come. To Damian, she says: ‘Your journey is long, handsome Odysseus, in your toil for happiness. It might be in reach but treachery, fire and destruction surround… Only your courage and your determination will carry you through the dark times ahead.’
When Damian asks what the outcome will be, Delia’s answer is simple but clear: ‘Tò peprōménon phygeîn adýnaton. It is impossible to escape from what is destined.’
Delia is like a modern-day priestess of the gods. Damian and Oriel have bumped into her outside a cave on the island called the Grotto of Heracles, where the oracles were delivered in Hellenistic times. Delia is the Oracle, and she receives the oracles at the oracle: you see, the ancient Greeks used the word ‘oracle’ to mean the priest who hears messages from the gods, and the place where the priest receives that message, and the message itself.
Oriel may be somewhat taken aback and unsettled by Delia’s messages – especially when the old woman goes on to warn Oriel about what is to come for her – but the Ancient Greeks would not have been. They believed that communication with the gods was possible in certain places, through certain people, and that the gods took an interest in mortal lives and would offer guidance and glimpses of the future.
The Grotto of Heracles would have been the oracle for Helios, and its priest would have helped the people of the island. But the place to go in Ancient Greece if you really wanted to get close to the gods and receive wise advice from the most powerful of priests was Delphi in central Greece. There, the High Priestess Pythia served as the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo (pictured), making prophecies on the seventh day of the month on everything from politics and warfare to laws and personal problems. According to a test conducted by the king of Lydia, Croesus, in 560 BC on the most prominent oracles in the world, Pythia was the most accurate in her predictions – although she could be a little vague, leaving her wisdom very much up to the receiver’s interpretation.
Interpretation is everything when it comes to ‘words of wisdom’ in my novels. I use the soothsayer character to make a heroine question their past, present and future, but it is up to her to decide which parts of a prophecy should be heeded and how accurate that prophecy may be.
It is all too easy to dismiss, as Oriel is inclined to do, such oracles as ‘nonsense’. But the people of all ancient civilisations believed in oracles, and at the very least we should respect that belief, if not find meaning it. For as Socrates said in 440 BC, when the Oracle at Delphi declared him to be the wisest man, ‘The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.’ So who are we to say oracles were not messengers of the gods, and that we may not encounter one to this very day?