Ethics: The Delphic Maxims

People often say that when it comes to ethics, all religions say basically the same thing. This isn’t exactly true (I only follow some of the Ten Commandments on a regular basis, for example :)) but it’s not uncommon for a religion to provide some moral guidance for its adherents.

Modern polytheists who honor ancient gods sometimes make use of ancient texts as a source of moral wisdom. Heathens have the Havamal, Kemetics have the Negative Confessions, both of which consist as much of pieces of advice as of ethical prescriptions. The Delphic Maxims are similar, and can provide a similar guide for modern Hellenic polytheists.

The Delphic Maxims were literally carved in stone at the site of the Delphic oracle. There are 147 of them. At one time they were said to have come from Apollo himself (much as the Norse Havamal or “Sayings of Har” was said to have come from Odin). Later and modern scholars believe that they are simply a collection of well-known sayings, which of course takes nothing away from the possibility of Apollo being their ultimate source.

Some of the Maxims will seem strangely familiar–“Worship the Gods” (#3), “Be jealous of no one” (#60), “Shun murder” (#51) and “Respect your parents” (#4) are quite similar to some of the Ten Commandments of the Christian Bible.

Others will seem familiar because they have become well known on their own merits. “Know thyself” (#8) and “Nothing in excess” (#48) are particularly far-famed. 

Not all of the Maxims are created equal. Along with precepts that recommend seeking such virtues as wisdom, honor, and justice, there are some that provide what we may see as less stellar general advice, such as “Rule your wife” (#95).

And while 147 Maxims may seem like a lot, there is a lot of redundancy within the list. Five refer to acting justly, two to being impartial, three to avoiding promises and oaths, and so forth.

Sometimes the Maxims conflict, or seem to. “Be fond of fortune” (#77) and “Admire oracles” (#123) but “Do not trust fortune” (#142). “Act without repenting” (#100) yet “Repent of sins” (#101).

(Please note that I don’t read Greek and rely on translations in writing this. :))

On the whole, though, the Delphic Maxims are well worth reviewing and considering. Think about what they mean, what they may have meant in the past and what they mean in the world today. I would not necessarily recommend them as a full or complete code of ethics but there is a lot of wisdom there.

My personal top five? “Honor the hearth/Hestia” (#13), “Use your skills” (#57) “Seek wisdom” (#48), “Praise hope” (#62), and “Pursue harmony” (#107).

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