Colleen Haight on the Oracle of Delphi
Date: August 24th, 2014

The Oracle of Delphi was an important religious, economic, and political institution , serving the wealthy and powerful throughout ancient Greece (particularly the 6th – 4th centuries BCE).  Prof. Colleen Haight, an associate professor of economics at San Jose State University, uses economic analysis to explain its vital function in a territory that was composed of a number of equally-balanced city-states.  In the process, we discover a new game theoretic equilibrium and discuss a number of other applications from ancient Israel to contemporary Turtle Bay.

Our conversation begins with a general discussion of what oracles are and what, in particular, was the Oracle of Delphi.  Situated outside the powerful city-states of Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and Thebes, the city of Delphi and its volcanic fumaroles grew in reputation beginning in the 8th century BCE and picking up popularity during the 6th century BCE as a place where the political and economic elite would gather to have virgin priestesses (often intoxicated by sulfuric fumes) make pronouncements to important questions surrounding war and trade.  The pronouncements would generally take place once a month, but the elite would often gather beforehand and trade stories with one another.  This information would be gathered by important religious officials as a means of determining how to answer the questions and pleas put before the oracle.  Delphi also became the site of numerous artistic and athletic festivals that also drew many people from the surrounding areas and provided a neutral territory on which to trade and compete.

Prof. Haight then explains how she and her colleagues — Larry Iannaccone and Jared Rubin — applied the tools of economic analysis and game theory to understand the importance of the Delphic Oracle.  We emphasize how economics is more than just a study of GDP or unemployment, but rather is an analytic lens that helps us understand all sorts of behavior, including seemingly irrational behavior such as relying upon the supernatural judgment of an oracle to make life-and-death decisions.  Colleen explains that the economics of religion has largely focused on two primary church-state equilibria — monopolistic state religions and laissez faire religious competition.  The former (religious monopoly) is a very tempting institutional arrangement for secular rulers because it allows them to control an important source of legitimacy.  Nonetheless, some of the problems associated with a monopolistic religion include the possibility that clerics will provide rulers with “yes men” answers to important questions and the citizenry will often think religious legitimation is corrupted by the close connection between church and state.  The opposite equilibrium — free market spiritual competition — may be beneficial for religious groups but does not aid rulers extensively in legitimating their decisions.

The discussion then turns to the discovery of a third equilibrium point — the neutral nexus.  In this situation, secular leaders maintain control over their own cults within their own territory, but also rely upon an outside, third-party source of religious legitimation for their rule.  This is the role that the Oracle of Delphi played.  With several ancient Greek city-states essentially locked in a balance of power, the city of Delphi could assert its neutrality amidst the larger political players of the region (i.e, Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and Thebes).  More importantly, the rulers of each of these city-states could use the Delphic Oracle as a source of information regarding future military campaigns or other major decisions.  It was in the interest of each of secular rulers both to provide the oracle with valid information and to rely upon its pronouncements as valid.  In many ways, this helped to mitigate conflict between the different regional powers.  It was only when one ruler (Philip II of Macedon) was able to consolidate territorial power over the bulk of ancient Greece that the Delphic Oracle lost its neutrality and, hence, its authoritative power.

We spend the last third of the discussion talking about different applications of this theory, namely how a third-party religious source can be used to justify secular rule and policy decisions.  Colleen provides an illustration of the Temple of Shiloh in ancient Israel.  With the Levites holding no territorial claims, they became the Jewish tribe that served the same role as the Greek oracles, providing a “neutral ground” on which different parties could share information and rely upon wise judgments.  Tony raises the possibility of whether the Holy See served a similar role in medieval Europe.  We bring up the Investiture Controversy wherein a number of disparate nobles in the Holy Roman Empire were concerned about Henry IV attempting to appoint bishops and ruin the ostensible neutrality of the Catholic Church, an institution that helped provide some semblance of order amidst a rather fractured Europe.  We also note how the neutral nexis theory helps explain the location of the US national capitol in a swampy region just north of Virginia, and how most US states have capitols in cities that are not the dominant metropolis in the region (e.g., Reno, NV, Sacramento, CA, and Albany, NY).  (This is where Tony also reveals an interesting little historical tidbit about the location of Washington State’s capitol and reveals what his favorite city in the region is.)  Colleen and Tony also ponder whether or not the United Nations also serves as a “neutral nexus oracle” function, but Colleen points out some reasons why the folks at Turtle Bay may not be as effective as the sulfuric-fumed virgins of Delphi.  Both agree that there is a lot of research that could be done by an enterprising scholar using the neutral nexis hypothesis.

We conclude with Colleen’s general thoughts on this subject matter, and she provides an excellent summary for why economic analysis is so useful for understanding seemingly irrational behavior.  She leaves us with an interesting mystery about why strict sects with stigmatic behavior and high costs often tend to fare better than more “laid back” religious groups, contrary to popular explanation … a mystery that perhaps only Larry Iannaccone can solve.  We shine our metaphorical “Larry Light” (reminiscent of the Bat Signal in Gotham) into the night sky hoping that it will soon be answered.  Recorded: August 22, 2014.


 Prof. Colleen Haight’s personal website.

Lessons from Delphi: Religious markets and spiritual capitals,” by Laurence Iannaccone, Collen Haight, and Jared Rubin.

Hostile Territory: High-tension Religion and the Jewish Peddler,” by Colleen Haight.

Is Fair Trade in Coffee Production Fair and Useful?” by Colleen Haight (one of Tony’s favorite economic articles).


Jared Rubin on Christian and Islamic Economic History.

Larry Witham on the Economics of Religion.


5 Responses to “Colleen Haight on the Oracle of Delphi”

  1. The capital of Nevada is Carson City, not Reno. The reason Sacramento was chosen as the capital of California might be because in 1850 it had over 7% of the state’s total population (see, was perhaps the largest city in the state altho no figure is published for San Francisco that year.

    • tonygill says:


      I will stand by my claim that Ellensburg, WA was slated to be the capitol of Washington State for “oracle-like” reasons … until a wildfire destroyed the town.

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