Friday, 23 July 2010

The Oracle of Lesvos

(The Oracle Cat Molly)

Soccer madness is over. The few balconies that were decorated with the colour orange here on the island have been stripped of their flags and banners and the orange t-shirts have mostly disappeared from the streets.

I am not a big soccer fan, but I did find it interesting to read what was happening around the world championship. I was pretty amused by all the stories written in the run-up to the final between Holland and Spain about oracles predicting the result. And what oracles they were! There was a German octopus called Paul, which got all Germany’s results correct and then accurately foretold the demise of the Dutch team. The Dutch better believed his rival, a Dutch octopus called Pauline, who was off course predicting a victory for Holland, just like an Indonesian parakeet.

The ancient art of prediction has never faded far from human society. Besides the horoscopes in the papers, all over the world you still find prophets who will read your future in a glass bowl or from the tarot cards (or whatever).

In Greece they will read the coffee grounds in the bottom of your cup. When you’ve have finished drinking, just turn the cup upside down, wait until the sludge trickles down the sides and then reverse the cup, and see what pattern emerges around the inside wall of the cup.

In ancient times a simple cup of coffee would not do. You had to visit a real oracle, mostly located in a monastery, and first you had to make offerings to put the relevant deity in an obliging mood. The most famous oracle was at Delphi, in the temple of Apollo, where the priestess Pythia —a medium between the people and the allknowing god — told you what awaited you and (if you understood it correctly) you could then act on the advice.

It is said that on Lesvos too there was an oracle consulted by people who came from all corners of the ancient world. When the head of Orpheus was washed was upon the Lesvorian shore, it was brought to a local temple of Apollo (it is as also said the oracle was in a cave), from where the head started to tell people their future; or it did so until Apollo got a little angry with the dead musician who, as well as continuing to sing songs after his death was now foretelling the future. So he made sure the prophetic of Orpheus was never heard again.

I have to say that there’s a lot of difference between hearing the future foretold by a mystery priestess, the head of a mythological demi-god or an octopus.

Actually the octopus has a relatively large brain and scientists have suggested it is an intelligent animal. Researchers on the coast of North Sulawesi and on Bali have seen octopuses come on to the beach and pick up discarded halves of coconuts. They dig them out of the sand, gather them up in their tentacles and like huge dancing spiders trip back into the sea. They then use the hard coconut shells to reinforce their undersea lairs, the hiding spots where they retreat when danger comes near.

Scientists can try to prove that octopodi are clever, that they can hear and learn, but that would be hardly enough of a reason to believe that they are interested enough in soccer to be able to predict the results of world cup games; or that maybe they are in communication with the god Apollo who tells them what will happen in the future.

Maybe we had better listen to animals which have had a closer relationship with humans and, in some cultures, were praised like gods, as were cats of ancient Egypt. I too have my own oracle: my cat Molly. Just before the first game that Holland played in South Africa, Molly scratched her ear open and there was blood everywhere, so much that at first I thought she had been attacked (and even killed) by the local dogs. But it was just the upper tip of her ear that was the cause of the bloody mess.

Some days later — by which time I had cleaned the blood from our tablecloths and chairs — Holland played its second game and my poor Molly scratched her ear again, so that once more I had to take to the scrubber, soap and water hose to clean up the mess, while on the television, Dutch supporters went mad with joy because Holland was again on the merge of a victory. So when Holland’s third game came I thought it might be wise to put my nice clean table cloth out of the way, a wise decision as it turned out, because although the fountain did not flow as long and fast as the first time, Molly’s ear bled again and sure enough, after she had made her third self-sacrificial offering of blood, Holland won again. This ritual went on and on until there came the final game and Molly once more started her scratching. But this time there was no blood and, as we all know, the Dutch lost to Spain.

It was only after the events that I realised that it was only Molly’s bleeding ear that was predicting victories for Holland. So, as far as I am concerned, she is definitely an oracular cat.

Molly got through her ordeals away from the glare of the international publicity colossus, and is now back to her normal life. But I do wonder what octopus Paul is up to these days. Some business people from Galicia in Spain wanted to buy him, remove him from his aquarium in Oberhausen, to become a food festival mascot. But he has not been allowed to emigrate and I think that is a good thing. Imagine if he were swapped for a Galician octopus and cooked into one of those fabulous Spanish paellas. I am sure Apollo would not like that.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

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