[What’s That?] Maxims of Delphi

The Maxims of Delphi are over one hundred aphorisms, or short, artistic or poetic statements expressing general truths on science, philosophy, ethics, morality, or the arts. The nature of maxims, in general, not just those of Delphi, is that they are only generally true, or rather they are subjective truths for the general populace — there will be exceptions, the general populace may change enough to make an individual such statement no longer generally true. This may seem heretical to people who put an inordinate amount of spiritual value on the Maxims of Delphi, but hear me out: It’s completely fair to define “maxim” for people.

In spite of what you may have seen some people claim, the authorship of the Delphic Maxims is debated amongst Classicists and Hellenic Polytheists, especially the academics, alike. While many religious Hellenists seem to be in consensus with crediting to the Oracle of Delphi, some expanding on that as a credit to Apollon himself via the Delphian Pythia the authorship of at least some phrases in the “canonical” list of 147 (more on this in a bit), or all of them, and as per Stobaeus of the Byzantine era, they are credited to the Seven Sages. The famous “Know Thyself”, inscribed on the wall of the pronaos (forecourt) of the temple of Delphi, is often credited specifically to Thales of Miletus, the most notable attribution possibly coming from Diogenes Laertius in his Lives, though at least ten other sages of ancient Hellas have also been suggested as authors of the three Maxims of the temple pronaos of Delphi. It’s also been suggested that these and other Maxims were popular proverbs of the day, and their compilation was conducted either by the Temple of Apollon at Delphi or the Sages. Regardless of their authorship, and who or even Who that may be, if, as a whole, they help you out, own that, if only a few have ever been of any use to you, work that, too.

The number of the Maxims of Delphi, and even their content vary depending on certain factors: Who complied them, who translated them, where they were used (one seems to change meaning completely depending on whether it was on the wall of a gymnasium or not), and the purpose given to them. On old email lists, it’s been suggested numerous times that much of the “canonical” list of 147 suggests a purpose for teaching schoolchildren, and given the content, the idea doesn’t seem that far fetched.

The most-complete list of Delphic Maxims I’ve found lists the “apocryphal” maxims as alternate lives, totalling 163 maxims [link].

Well, Ruadhán, that’s all well and good, but what about the Maxims of Delphi?

Honestly, I don’t think that the Maxims of Delphi have that great a spiritual value, at least no more than they have value as a description of mainstream ancient Hellenic values. They’re very culturally significant, and since religion in the ancient Mediterranean was practically impossible to completely separate from the rest of the culture, there is certainly spiritual insight throughout, but it’s ill-advised, in my opinion, to approach these as s Hellenic version of The Ten Commandments.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.