The oracle’s enduring presence in literature, film, and popular culture, assessed by Wood (English/Princeton Univ.) as a historical and cultural phenomenon.
There’s a little something for everyone here. The author provides learned, sometimes challenging discussions of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Milton; he alludes to The Matrix, Bob Dylan, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, films both popular (Minority Report) and otherwise (Throne of Blood); he offers revisionist and even generous considerations of the daily horoscope, Nostradamus, and your primary-care physician. Wood (Children of Silence, 1998, etc.) begins by wondering why the idea of oracles has lingered in so many cultures since its origins in—as nearly as he can tell—Greece in the eighth century b.c. He considers the centrality of the notion of gods in the oracular tradition. (“All things are full of gods, even if they are often figurative, and these gods talk all the time”) and explains how the oracles worked: communication with a god, then a generally ambiguous reply or prediction or warning. Wood distinguishes carefully among the various sorts of predicting entities and their intermediaries, giving a particularly interesting analysis of sibyls and a lovely riff on the sound of sibylline. Examining Cassandra, best known of all sibyls, he chronicles the cursed princess’s appearances in myths and in Christa Wolf’s 1984 novel, Cassandra. The author wonders (with Wittgenstein, whom he considers at length) about certainty, which he concludes has both “appalling attractions and alluring dangers.” Wood sees astrology as a harmless, playful pastime for people who don’t bother to ask about the process astrologers use to arrive at their generally genial pronouncements. And he tells a couple of brief, wrenching personal medical stories, one about a brother-in-law who died, another about his own son, who lived.
Sometimes erudite, sometimes esoteric, always unpredictable.