The narrator of Clare Pollard’s Delphi is 45, a classicist, a mother. She is anxious about COVID-19 infecting her family, frustrated about keeping her son at home but unhappy about sending him back to school, and working — or trying to work — from the kitchen table. In other words, she is me, give or take a few years and some extra children; in all likelihood, she is you as well. She may as well be. She has no name, no address, no clear place of employment (just “a good school”) — nothing to stop the reader from superimposing their own worries, their own concerns, over this individual life. Like the Pythia, she often feels like a blank, a vessel for my own experience of the last two years.
For all that, however, Delphi is a deeply intimate story, told in the language of maternal love, of fear, and, especially, of prophecy: the practice of seeking knowledge of the future through consultation with the divine. Consultations like that are something parents are prone to do anyway: I have two astrological charts for my firstborn child, offered to us by friends and family as part of our new parental responsibilities. As ancestors in waiting, we guard our children’s future, even if we don’t know precisely what it entails. The mother of a highly allergic child, Pollard’s narrator lives in a more rigorous guardianship, which grows worse as COVID-19 descends and spreads. Into her already burgeoning anxiety merges her scholarly interest in ancient prophecy, as well as the compounding sense that nothing is going quite right. As the world shrinks into lockdown, prophecy increasingly comes to organize the way she thinks about the world, her own hopes and frustrations.
Prophecy appeals to everyone. From horoscopes to modeling projections, we are all in the business of managing risk, seeking reassurance, gambling on stability, trying to control the way our story grows and evolves. The problem, of course, is that stories, like children, cannot be so easily controlled, and so Delphi is also a story about someone slipping slowly into madness — not the dramatic madness of Greek drama, with its divine apparitions and self-mutilation, but a mundane domestic feeling of losing one’s mind, which is no less awful for that.
That this someone is a working woman is no coincidence: women during the pandemic, especially mothers, have suffered disproportional job loss, childcare disruptions, rising anxiety, and increased domestic violence. Pollard’s narrator is on the privileged side of that scale: she holds on to her job, has a house with a yard, and has reliable healthcare. She is still, however, subject to all the minor indignities mothers have had to endure since March 2020. Working at the kitchen table: check. Juggling work with digital-school monitoring: check. Productivity loss: check. Guilt over the kids’ ever-expanding screen time: check. A daunting responsibility for the family’s health and well-being: check. Growing weariness and a desire for something — anything — to make sense: check, check, check.
Within this unstable landscape, prophecy becomes a form of therapy. After all, one of the sayings inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi read “Know Thyself,” and what is oracular consultation if not an attempt to outsource the self to someone who would use it better? More precisely, perhaps, prophecy becomes a kind of anxiety management, a way of looking into the future and establishing some anchor point in it — as well as a gateway for endless second-guessing. This novel’s first words are “I am sick of the future,” but our narrator can’t stop seeking out glimpses of that future, reassurances of its safety or premonitions of its dangers. Like all of us, the attraction of the toxic is hard to resist: we know it’s bad for us — we do it anyway, despite ourselves, in the hope that it is worth the price.
Fortunately for our narrator, she can rationalize her prophetic addiction as research. She is writing a book on ancient oracles, “a Classical Reception Studies sort of thing,” tracking the survivals and legacies of ancient consultations through to the present day. Delphi is, accordingly, drenched with allusions to the classics — as motifs, illustrations, ways of thinking. Medea, who killed her own children to get revenge on their cheating dad, is a recurring motif, including a quote on a banner in a long-ago protest: “Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst treated things alive.”
Despite this background, however, and despite knowing professionally that all we ever bring to prophecy is ourselves, the narrator is constantly driven to seek a glimpse of the future through markedly non–Greco-Roman forms of divination: I Ching, the tarot, lucid dreams, whatever is legally available to a working mother in crisis. Culturally, this is unproblematic: humanity is, after all, united in its yearning for oracular knowledge. But it does expose her habit for what it is — obsession rather than research, as the narrator herself is perfectly aware. Like all of us who read our daily horoscopes, what she wants is a sign: that everything will be okay, that the plague will somehow skip her house, that her marriage will survive, that her book will get written, that she too will find some purpose amidst the great languishing. Isn’t that what we all want?
Delphi, however, is not a story about getting what we want. Women’s stories rarely are.
To make sense of things in the ancient world, you went to the shrines and temples of the gods and appealed to the oracle. At the cheaper end of the scale were local charlatans and small-fry shrines, but at the very top, high up on Mount Parnassus in central Greece, was the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the Pythia dispensed prophecies to kings and nations. In a ritual frenzy, the priestess uttered unintelligible noises, later transposed (or so scholars believe) into plain Greek prose, or, more dramatically, into metrical poetry. Though it later became patently biased and politically motivated, the oracle remained widely respected, dispensing answers to questions both mythical and historical. The trick was to understand what the oracle meant. King Croesus, the fabulously wealthy despot of what is now western Turkey, asked: “Should I go to war?” The priestess replied: “If you do, you will destroy a great empire.” He did, but the empire he destroyed was his own, and he died an exile.
Oedipus of Thebes, who did actually have a plague on his hands, sent to Delphi and was told that the cause of all the dying was the continued presence in the city of the man who murdered the old king. Oedipus began making inquiries, only to discover that the murderer was — you guessed it — his younger self, who had indeed once killed an old man at a crossroads. But only because he was running away from home — you see, an oracle from Delphi prophesied that Oedipus would one day kill his father (and sleep with his mother, which is neither here nor there). As it happened, the old king was told much the same, which was why baby Oedipus was abandoned on the mountainside and then raised by a kindly shepherd, whom he very much did not wish to kill. Hence the running away, the murder, the incest, the plague.
Still, what these myths all have in common is the failure of prophecy to inform policy, driving a need for further consultations. Oracles are too polyphonic and too vague — they tell too much, and so too little. About a third of the way through Delphi, our narrator points out the distressing similarity between ancient prophecy and leaked information from COVID-19 modeling: vague information can lead to political instability. And Delphi covers not only the pandemic but also the growing political instability on both sides of the Atlantic. In the background of the narrator’s eroding normalcy are the waning days of the Trump administration, the spectacle of British officials flouting COVID-19 protocols, the January 6 insurrection (“so that’s a bad sign”), the murders of Sarah Everard and George Floyd, antiracism protests, and the lingering anxieties of the lockdown. What our narrator does know, however, is that all the institutions she relies on are disintegrating: from healthcare and governance to marriage and motherhood. It is precisely times like these when people turn to oracles — but is prophecy itself also on the fritz?
In a very real sense, we are living in a golden age of prophecy: it has seldom been more precise or better believed. We forecast the weather, predict electoral results, and have a clear sense of our climate future, or lack thereof. These models, impenetrable and sophisticated as they are, enjoy the same acceptance as any oracle: we do not entirely know how they are created, but their general reliability (“partly sunny, with a chance of rain”) makes us accept them. Every now and then, the models fail: an unexpected burst of weather, a misbehaving stock, or an electoral surprise like the one in 2016. When those happen, we might endure a short period of introspection and caution, but we soon rally back to the same predictive models. Knowing the future, whether through science or mysticism, has a potent allure.
Still, what is to be gained by it? Delphi is not so much about the pandemic itself as it is about the madness that flows from it. From a politics gone topsy-turvy to disrupted domestic routines and interrupted life cycles, the novel vividly portrays what happens when everything stops working all at once, including the authorities we look to for succor and the stories we tell ourselves to cope.
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor of classics at UT-Austin. She is interested in Roman historiography, political narratives, and the modern reception of classical antiquity from cricket to Game of Thrones.