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What happened when oracular consultations “failed”? Modern scholarship tends to emphasize how ancient Greek oracular consultation provided clarity and a sense of control for its clients. In contrast, myriad tales about oracles from across ancient literature tell of hopes raised and dashed, mortals who misunderstand, and oracles that mislead. This essay suggests that we might productively explore these stories as responses to an important aspect of ancient lived experience: specifically, when the events that an oracle had foretold did not occur. Focusing on oracles concerned with the foundations of settlements, this essay begins by examining how scholars have previously explained such apparent oracular failures by appealing to a combination of “structural blocks to falsifiability” (e.g., mortal misunderstanding) and ancient piety. Drawing on psychological theories and anthropological studies of failed prophecy, this essay offers an alternative account of the ways in which failed oracular pronouncements were explored, explained, and managed by those who received them. Stories of oracular failure reveal how creatively cultural resources – from storytelling to cult foundation – were employed to preserve the core concepts of communities and their cultures.
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