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John Opsopaus-The Counsels of the Seven Sages

Artwork, based on ancient busts and statues, from the 19th century book ‘Vies des Savants Illustres’. Picture by Sheila Terry.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from John Opsopaus’s seminal book, ‘The Oracles of Apollo, Practical Ancient Greek Divination for Today‘. Llewellyn Publications. 2017. From page 139 to 142. Following our preceding post about the ‘Diner of the Seven Wise Men’, as told by Plutarch of Chaeronea in his “Moralia‘.

Plato gives us the most ancient list of the Seven Sage, but lists and authorship of the sentences vary and, according to Demetrius of Phalerum, this tradition is actually more ancient. The seven sage were known for their practical wisdom and their memorable sayings. Tradition tells us that they gathered at Delphi to offer their Counsels and Sentences to Apollo.

This is the fascinating story that Professor Opsopaus (aka, Dr. Bruce MacLennan) tells us now. Enjoy !


The Origin of the Counsel of the Seven

Plutarch of Chaeronea (ca. 46-ca. 120 C.E.) who was high priest of Apollo at Delphi and a expert in sacred lore, tells an interesting tale. One day in the sixth century B.C., some fishermen from the island of Cos hauled in their nets, and some young men of Miletus, who were there, offered to buy their catch, sight unseen. When they inspected the contents, they found a heavy golden tripod that had belonged to Helen of Troy.

Before continuing with the story, let me say a little about tripods, which were important in Greek culture from the earliest times. They were three-legged stands, generally made of bronze or other metals, and often supported a built-in cauldron or shallow dish. They were used for many ordinary purposes, such as cooking, but also as altars for making offerings to the gods. They were often awarded as prizes in athletic games and dramatic contests, given by guests to their hosts, or dedicated by worshippers to the gods. In mythology, the craft god Hephaistos is supposed to have made magical tripods that moved about themselves and brought food to the gods in their banquets. However, tripods are most closely associated with Apollo. For example, Aeneas, the hero who escaped fallen Troy and founded Rome, received oracles from the tripod at the temple of Apollo in Delos. To prophesy, the High Priestess of Apollo at Delphi, sat on a slab supported by a tripod over a cleft in the earth, from which emerged the trance-inducing spirit of Python (pneuma Puthonos). One of the earliest myths depicted on Greek art tells how Herakles (half-brother of Apollo) stole the Delphic tripod after he was denied advice on how he could be purified of blood-guilt. They fought over until Zeus separated them with a lightning bolt; the tripod was returned to Delphi, and Herakles was purified.

This is a very rare drawing based on a vase painting depicting Apollo giving an oracle sitting on the 3 feet chair of the pythiac function. From the Hamilton collection.

The ancients disagreed about the origin of Helen’s tripod. Some said it was a sacred heirloom in the family of her husband Melenaos, which was originally given to his grand-father Pelops by Hephaistos as a wedding gift, and that Helen had taken it when she ran away with Paris. Others said that it was booty from the sack of Troy, where perhaps it stood in the temple besides the Palladion-the statue of Pallas Athena-that guarded the city. In any case, Helen threw it into the ocean when she was being brought back to Sparta from Troy.

The tripod is a symbol of wisdom, especially practical wisdom, such as the Seven Sages possessed, and in particular the ability to deliver wisdom in short maxims. Therefore, the Pythia sat upon a tripod to deliver her oracles from the god. But why did Helen throw her tripod overboard? Perhaps because of her dishonest behavior or her conflicted loyalties to Sparta and Troy. In any case, her explanation was that the tripod would be a source of conflict, and so it was.

Back to our story. True to Helen’s prophecy, a fight broke out about who would keep such a precious artifact. The Milesians said they had bought everything fair and square; the Coans said that they were selling only the fish. Soon the dispute escalated into a war between the cities. They sent a delegation to the temple of Apollo at Delphi to consult the oracle. “Who should possess the tripod?” the Milesians asked, and the Pythia replied: “Com’st thou to consult my shrine? The Tripod to the wisest I Assign.” The Coans received this reply: “No end of strife, until the Seer whose presence makes Past, Present, Future clear.”

After much discussion, The Milesian and the Coans agreed that the god meant the Milesian philosopher Thales, known for his mathematical and scientific knowledge, including the ability to predict eclipses and the weather. He was also an expert in divine matters and said “All things are full of gods“. Therefore, they presented the tripod to him. But Thales said, “I am not the wisest. That honor belongs to Bias of Priene, for no judge is wiser.” and so he sent the tripod to Bias. But Bias, likewise judged himself to be unworthy of the honor, and sent the tripod on to Pittacus of Mytilene, who had brought democracy to Lesbos. And so the tripod was passed on, to Chilon of Sparta, to Cleobulus of Lindus-who had studied philosophy in Egypt-, to Periander of Corinth-known for his justice-; each Sage humbly sending it on to another, whom he deemed more worthy, until it came to Solon of Athens-who had instituted the Athenian Constitution. Solon thought, “I am a mere statesman; the prize should go to someone with knowledge of the natural and the divine“, and so he sent the tripod to Thales.

Thus the tripod made the circuit of the Seven Sages. They consulted among themselves and realized that whatever wisdom they had, they owed to Apollo, who is the wisest god, and that the tripod should be dedicated in his temple. The Seven travelled together to Delphi, where they erected a marble stele (Greek, Stele), a tablet on which they engraved their wisdom. Thales contributed “Know Thyself“. Solon contributed “Nothing too much“. Together they had 147 wise maxims engraved on the stele. Thus they offered the fruit of their wisdom to the god.

What were these gems of ancient wisdom? They might have been lost in the ruins of Delphi, but a certain Johannes Stobaeus, who lived in Macedonia in the fifth century C.E., kept extensive notes on everything that he read. Among them is ‘Sosiades’ ‘Counsel of the Seven Sages‘, which lists 147 short maxims. There is no explanation, but a reasonable assumption is that the (otherwise unknown) philosopher Sosiades copied them down from the tablet at Delphi.

Many scholars were skeptical about the existence of this Tablet of the Seven Sages; after all, there are many legends about engraved tablets containing ancient wisdom. This changed in 1966 when archeologists found the base of a stele in present-day Afghanistan. It was engraved with a dedication by Klearchos, one of of Aristotle’s student in the fourth century BCE., who travelled throughout the ancient world, even as far as India. In his dedication he says that he has very carefully copied the Wise Sayings of the Men of Old in the most holy Pythian Shrine, and has set them up in that faraway place so that their wisdom could illuminate the people there. Unfortunately, the stele that the base supported, which contained the maxims, has been lost except for a small fragment, but we have a good idea what they were, thanks to a happy accident. Apparently the stone cutter ran out of room on the stele and had to squeeze the last five line on the base next to the dedication. (I imagine Klearchos was pretty unhappy with this sloppy carving job, and I hope he didn’t pay the full amount in advance !) These five lines are also the last five lines in Stobaeus’ text, and the surviving fragment of the stele contains two maxims in Stobaeus’ order. This is good evidence that Stobaeus’ text is the correct one, and therefore it is the text I have used in the following oracle of the Seven Sages.

(End of Quote)


Read the Counsels of the Seven Sages here


Picture from Louis Robert’s article: ‘De Delphes à l’Oxus, inscriptions grecques nouvelles de la
About John Opsopaus and his work: 🌿Bruce MacLennan’s home page: 🌿Louis Robert’s article here about the Bactrian(Afghanistan) stele find: 🌿About the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom where the stele was found: 🌿 About Johannes Stobaeus:
John Opsopaus-The Counsels of the Seven Sages

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