Language and Sound: The Oracle of Delphi

Dorette Panagiotopoulou

Supervisors: Mark Cousins, Doreen Bernath

The thesis explores the space between voice, speech and writing though a study on the oracle of Delphi, an oral culture that is then transcribed and codified into written text. The manifold life of sign and sound (of language itself) as well as that of the author and the receiver, are attached by the material they share: writing, a currency always in the throws of exchange. An ideology of writing and receiving, the relationship between sound, silence, and voice, is like all relations, about power. Does the voice have to submit to the written word? Was writing more like an act of re-writing or what we may call editing in the early period of the adoption of writing to speech, rather than a whole new way of representing language? The relationship of writer and receiver, sound and silence is one of domination but also – sometimes – one of commonality. 

Within the study of oracular statements and inscriptions at the temple of Delphi, I am developing a central question which concerns the tension between the narratives which describe it as an utterance by the Pythia and the oracle’s appearance, circulation, and dissemination in textual form – the tension here being between the spoken and the written word. The question of the oracle’s dissemination is a crucial one, as it presents a form of language or rather a cultural phenomenon that combines both literacy and orality. Even the Pythia’s language itself, emerges as neither deceptive nor crystalline, falling thus somewhere between the written and the illusory. There is one main concept that seems to link the two studies, specifically, inscription. The analysis of the letter “E” in Plutarch’s dialogue “On the E at Delphi”, leads to an understanding of inscription as something that acts as a lure or an invitation to investigate. The letter “E” takes the form of a pure symbol of judgment that evokes both the acts of interpretation and intuition in relation to truth. The Delphic inscription, mediated by Plutarch, has become a classic instance of the problem of interpretation. Not unlike oracular formulations that neither conceal nor reveal but indicate, inscription appears as both formal and hermeneutic. It entails the ability to say and to represent at the same time, while revealing the division or even blurring the lines that separate sign, form, and word. The very thing that is both seen and read is muted in the vision, and concealed in the reading. Thus, inscription bears a “not yet to say” and a “no longer to represent” that leads to the search for that force that produces a full meaning – one beyond the grasp of the linguistic – that utters the unspeakable through the “space” of emptiness and silence. 

Image: Juxtaposition of film still and the Temple of Apollo (Tacita Dean: Landscape, Portrait, Still Life, RA)

Biography: Dorette Panagiotopoulou has obtained a Masters degree in Cultural and Intellectual History at the Warburg Institute after having completed her Undergraduate Studies at the AA, from which she graduated in 2013 from Diploma unit 14. She is currently undertaking a PhD that examines the subject of the Delphic Oracle, under the supervision of Mark Cousins and Doreen Bernath, while teaching in the AA History and Theory Studies courses as a seminar tutor. She has previously worked at Hopkins Architects in London, as well as in the Re-Activate Athens project – a research and design initiative led by Urban-Think Tank studio based at ETH in Zürich in collaboration with the Onassis Foundation in Athens. She has also briefly worked on the report “Rafah: Black Friday” at Forensic Architecture based at Goldsmiths University. She is currently collaborating with a of group professors and architects from the Polytechnic School of Athens (NTUA) on a large project aimed to be realized in 2021 in Eleusis.