Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants

In 480 BC, the citizens of Athens were in more trouble than it is possible for our modern minds to fathom. Xerxes, the seemingly omnipotent son of Darius the Great, had some unfinished business left to him by his father. A decade earlier, at the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BC, the miraculous had happened: the underrated Athenian army had seen off Darius and his mighty Persian horde, saving the threatened city-state from certain destruction. Now Xerxes had invaded Greece again, to finish the work his father had started.

Just to make sure that this time Athens did not escape the wrath of the Persian Empire, Xerxes assembled the largest invading force the world had ever seen. While the Greek historian Herodotus—typically exaggerating—put the Persian numbers at 5 million, modern-day historians still place them at an overwhelming 360,000, in addition to a gigantic armada of 750 ships in support of this vast host.

Confronted with almost certain destruction, what did the hard-pressed Athenian leadership do? What was their response to a problem that in terms of both its size and devastating impact seemed utterly insurmountable?

Simple. They requested the services of the world’s first political risk consultant.

The Pythia Invents the Political Risk Industry

 Already, by 480 BC, the Pythia of Delphi amounted to an ancient institution. Now commonly now known as the Oracle of Delphi (when in fact the oracles were the pronouncements the Pythia dispensed), the Pythia were the senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy.

For over 1,100 years (until 390 AD), the Pythia was viewed as the most authoritative and important soothsayer in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to the temple on the slope of Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. Sitting in a small, enclosed chamber at the base of the shrine, the Pythia (there were three priestesses on call at any time) delivered her oracles in a frenzied state, most probably imbibing the hallucinogenic vapours rising from the clefts in the rock of Mount Parnassus, which we now know sits atop the intersection of two tectonic plates.

The Pythia would be sitting in a perforated cauldron astride a tripod. It was reported by pilgrims (as well as the Greek historian Plutarch, who served for a time as high priest at Delphi, assisting the Pythia in her mission) that as she imbibed the vapours arising from the stone her hair would stand on end, her complexion altered, and she would often begin panting, with her voice assuming an otherworldly tone. In classical days, it was asserted that the Pythia spoke in rhyme, in pentameter or hexameter. To put it in modern terms, the Pythia was clearly as high as a kite. But let’s look at the Pythia afresh. For I think that the Temple at Delphi amounts to nothing less than the world’s first political risk consulting firm.

At least since the days when the Athenians consulted the Pythia at the height of the Persian Wars, political and business leaders have looked to outsiders blessed with seemingly magical knowledge to divine both the present and the future. While the tools of divination have changed through the centuries, the pressing need for establishing the rules of the road for managing risk in geopolitics have not. The question for political risk analysis remains the same as it was during the heyday of the Pythia: through superior knowledge (be it spiritual or intellectual in nature), can we reliably do this?

The Pythia’s prognosticating advantages curiously track with the qualities political risk firms look for in their best analysts today. First, in their isolation at Mount Parnassus, the Pythia were not in danger of elite capture (and the curse of analytical groupthink that so often follows) in terms of what they predicated. This is the very curse that doomed so many modern-day analysts to be so very wrong about the Brexit vote (they didn’t bother to look outside the hermetically-sealed elite shell of London) or the startling advent of Donald Trump (they never left the East Coast corridor). Physical, intellectual, and emotional distance, since the days of the ancients until today, has always had great analytical value.

Second, coupled with this distance, the Pythia (and today’s political risk analysts) at the same time had limited but regular contact with the elites of their day who make the arduous trek to visit them. This constant if limited (the Pythia only deigned to speak to pilgrims one day a month) contact meant that those at the Temple of Apollo came over time to understand what it is their elite clients wished to know, and how to provide them with exactly what they lacked; independent, outside, authoritative advice.

Finally, at least in the High Classical Age, the Pythia were chosen from a group of highly educated women, who already knew quite a lot about the world. It is this strange and unique mix of special knowledge, education, distance from the corruptions of power and yet proximity to it, that describes the ideal CV for political risk analysts today, just as it did of the ideal Pythia of yesterday.

The Pythia gave advice to shape future actions, practical counsel that was to be implemented by the questioner. This is exactly what political risk analysts still do today, though we’d use modern jargon and call it ‘policy’ in the public sphere and ‘corporate strategy’ in the business world. But what the Pythia was doing is recognisably the same thing my political risk firm does today.

Actually, it is quite amazing how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, and well over half of them are said to be historically correct. In our own age of heightened political risk, I can name a goodly number of modern firms that would kill for that record. There has always been a market to answer basic political risk questions: Can the Persians be stopped, and if so how? Will the UK vote for Brexit? Will Donald Trump become President? Then as now, those with a reputation for getting basic political risk questions right were venerated, just as those who failed were over time were discredited.

Conclusion: The Pythia Masters the Persians

Crucially, over the biggest political risk question Delphi was ever presented with—the invasion of Xerxes—the Pythia came through with flying colours, outlining a policy that would provide the Athenians with a way to practically escape from their impending doom. The Pythia recounted that when Athena—the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and the patron of her namesake city—implored her father Zeus, the King of the Gods, to save Athens, he replied that he would grant them ‘a wall of wood that should be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children.’

Back in Athens, Themistocles, the paramount Greek leader in the fractious democracy, successfully argued that a wall of wood specifically referred to the Athenian navy, and he persuaded the rest of the city’s leaders to adopt a maritime-first strategy against the Persians. This policy—concocted by the Pythia and put into concrete action by the decision-maker Themistocles—led directly to the decisive naval Battle of Salamis, the turning point that brought to an end the Persian risk to Athens’s very survival. To put it mildly, the Pythia had proven to be well worth her political risk fee.

Published in Aeon, May 22, 2018

 Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was just published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is now available on Amazon.