views updated


ORACLES . The word oracle is derived from the Latin word oraculum, which referred both to a divine pronouncement or response concerning the future or the unknown as well as to the place where such pronouncements were given. (The Latin verb orare means "to speak" or "to request.") In English, oracle is also used to designate the human medium through whom such prophetic declarations or oracular sayings are given.

Oracles and Prophecy

In Western civilization the connotations of the word oracle (variously rendered in European languages) have been largely determined by traditional perceptions of ancient Greek oracles, particularly the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The term prophecy, on the other hand (from the Greek word propheteia, meaning "prophecy" or "oracular response"), has been more closely associated with traditions of divine revelation through human mediums in ancient Israel and early Christianity. One major cause of this state of affairs is that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures made during the third and second centuries bce) Greek words from the prophēt- family were used to translate words derived from the biblical Hebrew root nvʾ ("prophet, to prophesy"). Because most oracles in the Greek world were given in response to inquiries, oracles are often regarded as verbal responses by a supernatural being, in contrast to prophecy, which is thought of as unsolicited verbal revelations given through human mediums and often directed toward instigating social change. In actuality, question-and-answer revelatory "séances" were common in ancient Israel, and it was only with the appearance in the eighth century bce of free prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea that unsolicited prophecy became common. Further, the preservation of the prophetic speeches of the classical Israelite prophets in the Hebrew scriptures has served to ensure the dominance of this particular image of Israelite prophets and prophecy. Therefore, modern distinctions between "oracles" and "prophecy" are largely based on the discrete conventions of classical and biblical tradition rather than upon a cross-cultural study of the subject, though the terms themselves are often used and interchanged indiscriminately in modern anthropological studies.

Oracles and Divination

Oracles are but one of several types of divination, which is the art or science of interpreting symbols understood as messages from the gods. Such symbols often require the interpretive expertise of a trained specialist and are frequently based on phenomena of an unpredictable or even trivial nature. The more common types of divination in the Greco-Roman world included the casting of lots (sortilege), the flight and behavior of birds (ornithomancy), the behavior of sacrificial animals and the condition of their vital organs (e.g., hepatoscopy, or liver divination), various omens or sounds (cledonomancy), and dreams (oneiromancy). Chinese civilization made elaborate use of divination, partly as an expression of the Confucian belief in fate. Some of the more popular methods included the use of divining sticks and blocks (the latter called yin-yang gua ), used together or separately; body divination to predict the character and future behavior of select individuals (palmistry, physiognomy); astrology; the determination of the proper location of buildings and graves in accordance with yin and yang factors and the five elements (geomancy); coin divination; planchette divination or spirit writing; and the use of the Yi jing (Book of changes) for divination based on the symbol bagua, that is, the eight trigrams constituting the sixty-four hexagrams that provide the basis for the book.

Oracles (or prophecies) themselves are messages from the gods in human language concerning the future or the unknown and are usually received in response to specific inquiries, often through the agency of inspired mediums. Oracles have, in other words, a basic linguistic character not found in other forms of divination. This linguistic character is evident in the sometimes elaborately articulated inquiries made of the deities in either spoken or written form. In addition, oracles themselves exhibit a linguistic character ranging from the symbolized "yes" or "no" response, or "auspicious" or "inauspicious" response, of many lot oracles, to the elaborately crafted replies spoken and/or written by mediums while experiencing possession trance or vision trance, or shortly thereafter. This linguistic character of oracles presupposes an anthropomorphic conception of the supernatural beings concerned.

In actuality, oracles are usually so closely associated with other forms of divination that it is difficult to insist on rigid distinctions. Some commentators have vainly attempted to distinguish between oracles and divination by claiming that oracle is used only in connection with a specific deity, one often connected with a particular place. Other forms of divination were in fact used in all the ancient Greek oracle sanctuaries, often as an alternate form of consultation. At the oracle of Delphi, for example, where Apollo was believed to be present only nine months each year, oracular consultations were held in ancient times on only one day each year, the seventh day of the seventh month (seven was Apollo's sacred number), though they became more frequent with the passing centuries. On other auspicious days it has been supposed that the god could be consulted by means of a lot oracle, the exact nature of which is disputed. Questions were formulated to receive a yes or no answer, and oracular personnel may have used some type of lot oracle to answer such inquiries. In China divination was employed in all except Confucian temples; even in temples specializing in spirit mediumship, divinatory techniques such as divining sticks and divining blocks were regularly used.

A distinction between oracles and divination was made by the Roman orator Cicero (10643 bce), following Plato (c. 429347 bce) and the philosopher Posidonius (c. 13550 bce). This distinction was between (1) "technical" or "inductive" divination (Lat., artificiosa divinatio ; Gr., technikē mantikē ), based on special training in the interpretation of signs, sacrifices, dreams, prodigies, and the like, and (2) "natural" or "intuitive" divination (Lat., naturalis divinatio ; Gr., atechnos or adi-daktos mantikē ), based on the direct inspiration of the practitioner through trance or vision (Cicero, De divinatio 1.6.12; cf. Plato, Ion 534c). The Greek term for all forms of divination is mantikē, which, on account of its etymological relation to the term mania ("madness, inspired frenzy"), might appear a more appropriate designation for intuitive divination, yet even in the most archaic Greek texts it was not so used. A third category can be added, "interpretive" divination, in which a combination of inspired insight and technical skill is required.

Types of Oracles

Oracles are usually associated either with a sacred place where they are available in the setting of a public religious institution or with a specially endowed person who acts as a paid functionary or a freelance practitioner.

Oracular places

In the ancient Mediterranean world certain places were thought to enjoy a special sanctity, particularly caves, springs, elevations, and places struck by lightning (especially oak trees). The emphasis on the oracular powers inherent in particular sites is due to the ancient Greek belief that the primal goddess Gaia ("earth") was the source of oracular inspiration. While oracle shrines were rare among the Romans (the lot oracle of Fortuna Primigenia, goddess of fertility, at Praeneste was the most popular), they were very common in the Greek world. Apollo, the primary oracular divinity among the Greeks, had oracles at Delphi, Claros, and Didyma. Zeus had oracles at Dodona, Olympia, and the Oasis of Siwa in Libya (as the Egyptian god Amun); the healing god Asklepios had them at Epidaurus and Rome; and the heroes Amphiaraos and Trophonios had oracular grottoes in Lebadea and Oropus respectively. Each of these oracle shrines required supplicants to fulfill a distinctive set of traditional procedures, and each site had a natural feature connected with its oracular potencies. Springs or pools were closely associated with the oracles of Apollo at Delphi, Claros, and Didyma and in Lycia, with the healing oracle of Demeter at Patrae, with the oracle of Glykon-Asklepios at Abonuteichos, and with the oracle of Amphilochos in Cilicia. Further, the Pythia prepared for oracular consultations by drinking water from the Kassotis spring, and the priest-prophets of Apollo at Colophon and Claros did the same (Iamblichus, De mysteriis 3.11; Tacitus, Annals 2.54). Caverns or grottoes were associated with the lot oracle of Herakles Buraikos in Achaea, with the oracles of Apollo at Delphi (where the presence of a cavea widespread ancient opinionhas been disproved by modern archaeology) and at Claros, and with the oracle of Trophonios in Lebadea. An oak tree was a central feature of the cult of Zeus and Dione at Dodona.

In the ancient Mediterranean world three distinctive techniques were used at oracular shrines to secure three kinds of oracles: the lot oracle, the incubation (or dream) oracle, and the inspired oracle.

Lot oracles

The process of random selection that is the basis of all lot oracles is based on the supposition that the result either expresses the will of the gods or occasions insight into the course of events by providing a clue to an aspect of that interrelated chain of events that constitutes the cosmic harmony. Lot oracles used a variety of random techniques to indicate either a positive or a negative response to prepared queries, or to select one of a more elaborate set of prepared responses. Both types of response had a basic linguistic character and for that reason must be regarded as oracular. Questions to the ancient Greek oracles were typically put in such forms as "Shall I, or shall I not, do such and such?" and "Is it better and more beneficial that we do such and such?" The oracle of Zeus at Dodona was primarily a lot oracle in which questions framed by supplicants were inscribed on lead strips and rolled up. Though the exact procedure is not known, cultic personnel probably deposited the inscribed questions in a container and simultaneously drew out a question and an object from another container signifying a positive or negative answer from Zeus. The lot oracle of Herakles Buraikos used a form of divination called astragalomancy, or knucklebone divination. Knucklebones with numbers on their four flat sides were cast; the resultant numbers indicated a prepared oracle engraved on the walls of the sanctuary. One such oracular inscription, with the number of each of five knucklebones on the left and their total in the center, is the following (from G. Kaibel, Epigrammata Graeca, Berlin, 1878, p. 455, no. 1038; translated by the author of this article):

6663324From Pythian Apollo
Wait and do nothing, but obey the oracles of Phoebus.
Watch for another opportunity; for the present, leave quietly.
Shortly all your concerns will find fulfillment.

For centuries the Chinese have used divining sticks and divining blocks as a lot oracle similar in basic structure to the system of astragalomancy just described. Temples commonly have bamboo tubes containing a number of sticks, each marked with a number corresponding to a slip of paper containing written advice (i.e., an oracle) in verse. The kneeling worshiper shakes a stick out the of container, and the priest then reads and explains the response in relation to the inquirer's specific problem. Divining blocks may be thrown to determine whether the correct stick has been shaken out. Like the astragalomancy inscriptions, the advice is suitably vague, but usually it suffices. A typical example is the following:

Food and clothing are present wherever there is life, and I advise you not to worry excessively; if you will only practice filial piety, brotherliness, loyalty and fidelity, then, when wealth and happiness come to you, no more evil will harm you.

Such oracular responses frequently express Confucian values that are received as expressions of the will of the spirit (shen ) whose advice is being sought.

Incubation oracles

Incubation oracles in the ancient Mediterranean world were revelatory dreams sought in temples after completion of preliminary ritual requirements. Most incubation oracles were sought in connection with healing. The most popular healing god in antiquity was Asklepios, who had more than two hundred sanctuaries by the beginning of the Christian era. Typically, preparation for a revelatory dream or vision from Asklepios included a ritual bath and a sacrificial offering; fees were paid only if the healing was successful. After the lights in the temple or, in some cases, the incubation building (abaton ) were extinguished, Asklepios was expected to appear in either a dream or a vision and to perform a medical procedure or surgical operation, to prescribe a particular regimen, or to make some kind of oracular pronouncement, usually of a predictive nature. Another type of incubation oracle in the ancient Greco-Roman world was the oracle of the dead (psuchomanteion ), a shrine that facilitated consultations with the dead through dream or vision oracles.

One famous ancient oracle, that of Trophonios at Lebadea in Boeotia (central Greece), was described in some detail in the early second century ce by the traveler Pausanias (9.39.514). While this was not technically an incubation oracle, worshipers sought and received there a visionary experience of an oracular character. Both the protocol and the mythological features of the consultations strongly suggest that the worshiper was to visit the dead in the underworld so as to receive a revelatory experience. Isolated for several days, consultants abstained from hot baths, bathed only in the river Hercyna, made numerous sacrifices, and on the night before the consultation sacrificed a ram over a pit, following the sacrificial protocol appropriate for earth or chthonic divinities. Next, two young boys called Hermais (after Hermes Psychopompos, conductor of souls to the afterlife) led each supplicant to the river, washed him, and anointed him with oil, as in the preparation of a corpse. Priests then had the worshiper drink from the waters of forgetfulness and memory (in accordance with Greek underworld mythology), and finally they led him to the opening of a chasm, where he had to descend to meet Trophonios. Consultants emerged badly shaken and unable to laugha state associated by the Greeks with death.

Inspired oracles

In the Greco-Roman world many of the local oracles of Apollo employed a cult functionary who acted as an intermediary of the god and responded to questions with oracular responses pronounced in the god's name. Such mediums experience the cross-cultural phenomenon of an altered state of consciousness. Bourguignon (1973) has suggested that the two primary patterns of altered conscious states be designated "possession trance" (possession by spirits) and "vision trance" (visions, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences). Of the more than six hundred Delphic oracles collected by Parke and Wormell (1956), only sixteen are not presented as the direct pronouncements of Apollo himself. Similarly, the dangji ("divining youth") of the Chinese spirit medium cults of Singapore and mainland China south of Fukien (the mainland origin of immigrants to Singapore) speaks in the first person of the shen who possesses him. Though the evidence is ambiguous, it appears that forms of divination other than oracular pronouncements through mediums were preferred at oracles of gods other than Apollo.

The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was in many ways a unique religious institution that exerted a strong influence on other ancient Greek oracles. At Delphi, Apollo's intermediary was always a woman called the Pythia, a priestess but also a promantis ("diviner") and prophētis ("spokeswoman"), who occupied a permanent position. There is no evidence to suggest that she was selected for her clairvoyant powers. The attendants at Delphi also included five male hosioi ("holy ones") and two male priests called prophētai ("spokesmen"). Prior to the sixth century bce, Apollo could be consulted at Delphi only on the seventh day of the seventh month; thereafter consultations were held more frequently, on the seventh day of each of the nine months when Apollo was believed to be present at Delphi. (According to Delphic legend, he spent the three winter months far to the north among the Hyperboreans.)

On a day of consultation, a goat received a ritual bath in a spring; it was then sacrificed if, by trembling appropriately, it signaled the god's presence. Next, the Pythia took her seat within the aduton (inmost sanctuary) of the temple upon a tripod that represented the throne of Apollo. Though ancients believed that the tripod was situated over a fissure or chasm that emitted vapors causing divine inspiration, modern archaeology has disproved this notion. But the Pythia did drink water from the Kassotis spring, and later evidence reports that she chewed laurel leaves. Inquirers were assembled in an outer room and apparently spoke directly to the Pythia, who answered them. (No evidence suggests that their questions were submitted in written form.) The priest-prophets (prophētai ) probably wrote out responses for inquirers who were represented by envoys.

The traditional view, now discredited, held that the Pythia spoke incomprehensibly and that her utterances were interpreted and reduced to written form (often in verse) by one of the priest-prophets. Ancient and modern beliefs that the Pythia was in a state of hysterical ecstasy manifested in bizarre behavior are belied both by ancient literary evidence and by her calm demeanor in ancient vase paintings. The possession trance experienced by the Pythia appears to have been, in the categories of I. M. Lewis (1971), a state of "controlled possession," in distinction to the uncontrolled possession experienced by those not yet fully adept in managing the onset of possession.

A similar phenomenon is found in Chinese spirit possession cults. The intermediaries (dangjhi or jitong ) are not hereditary professionals; as a rule, they are young men or women, usually under twenty, who have an aptitude for experiencing altered states of consciousness, either involuntarily or through conscious cultivation. They are almost exclusively associated with temple worship where the shen who possesses the dangji is one that is customarily worshiped, and where the dangjii are subordinate to the owners of the temple (the promoters of its religious ceremonies), and usually to the saigong (Daoist priests). A consultation is usually planned at a temple for a particular time when the shen is called down by invocation. The dangji must fast beforehand and avoid sexual intercourse, and no pregnant or menstruating woman can be present at the oracular séance. The worshipers usually number about one dozen, though larger groups are possible. Outside the temple, a flag with the eight-trigram (bagua ) design indicates the presence of a dangji. The dangji both begins and ends the possession trance on a ceremonial dragon throne, which probably represents the imperial dragon throne where generations of Chinese emperors sat, representing divine ancestors.

The session begins with drums, gongs, and chants. Gradually, the dangji starts to exhibit the characteristics of possession (swaying, rolling of the head, staggering, uttering strange sounds) and often at the same time commits acts of self-injury without experiencing pain (cutting the tongue, extinguishing incense sticks with the tongue, piercing the cheeks with sticks). Consultations follow in which the dangji gives advice to worshipers, cures their illnesses, and either speaks incomprehensibly with divine wisdom (requiring the interpretation of colleagues) or addresses his colleagues in a shrill, unnatural voice representing ancient Chinese. Clothing and household items are brought to be stamped with the dangji' s blood for good luck. When no more business remains, the dangji signals that the shen is about to return; he then leaps into the air and is caught by assistants who lower him onto the dragon chair. Afterward, he does not remember what took place during the consultation.

Oracular persons

Professional diviners and intermediaries often have no permanent relationship to temples or shrines. They may practice their divinatory and oracular arts in their homes, in the marketplace, or in various places of employment such as army posts or governmental offices. These specialists often practice either possession trance or vision trance, but there are other possibilities as well.

Oracle diviners

During the late Shang dynasty in China (under the eight or nine kings from Wu Ding to Di Xin, c. 12001050 bce), the wu (shamans) in the service of kings and nobles employed a type of oracle divination called pyroscapulimancy. More than 107,000 "oracle bones" have been excavated (47,000 inscriptions have now been published); about 80,000 were found during excavations from 1899 to 1928, and the remainder from 1928 to 1937 during excavations by the Academia Sinica. Besides being of great value for understanding Shang religion, they are of incalculable importance for Chinese linguistics. The bones themselves consist of bovid scapulae and turtle plastrons. At the moment of consultation heat was applied to a drilled hollow on the inside or back of the shell or bone, causing a crack shaped like the Chinese character bu (meaning "to divine, to foretell") to appear on the other side. Both question and answer were recorded on the bone or shell itself, which then became part of the royal archives. The inscriptions usually consist of several parts: (1) preface (cyclical day, name of diviner, and sometimes the place of divination), (2) injunction (usually put into a positive or negative mode), (3) crack number, (4) crack notation, (5) prognostication (e.g., "The king, reading the cracks, said: 'Auspicious'"), and rarely (6) verification. Though most of the oracle inscriptions focus on the nature and timing of sacrifices (a preoccupation of most oracle questions and responses at ancient Greek oracles), others include announcements made to spirits or concern arrivals and departures, hunting and fishing, wars and expeditions, crops, weather, and sickness and health. The oracle questions used in pyroscapulimancy were directed to the great ancestral spirit and the spirits of the deceased kings, who were expected to send down their advice and commands.

Oracular possession-trance

Two legendary figures of ancient Greece and Rome, the sibulla (sibyl) and the less popular bakchis, were paradigms of possession-trance. The number of sibyls multiplied in antiquity, and lists of them distinguished by epithets formed of place names are not uncommon (see Varro as quoted in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.6); by the end of antiquity more than forty sibyls had been distinguished. The sibyls (always female) and the bakchides (always male) were believed to belong to the remote past; though connected with specific regions, they were often thought of as having traveled extensively. Their oracles, which were preserved in widely circulated collections, were believed to have been uttered in hexameter without solicitation while in a state of divine inspiration or possession. The inspiring deity was invariably Apollo, with whose oracle shrines the various sibyls tended to be associated. However, the oracular utterances of the sibyls and bakchides were never formulated as the first-person speech of Apollo but always referred to him in the third person. The popularity of the sibyl among Jews resulted in the composition and circulation of oracles in Greek hexameter uttered in the person of Yahveh, the God of Israel.

The oracles that circulated in collections under the names of various sibyls and bakchides were regarded as enigmatic and in need of interpretation. One collection of sibylline oracles was kept in Rome under the supervision of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, a college of fifteen priests, and was consulted only in time of national emergency, so as to obtain instructions for avoiding the peril. When this collection was accidentally destroyed by fire in 83 bce, a new collection was made. The last consultation occurred in the fourth century ce. The fourteen books of sibylline oracles now preserved are a mixture of pagan and Jewish materials. The content of the sibylline oracles was originally dominated by matters relating to portents, prodigies, and ritual procedures, but they also came to express political and religious protest, particularly against Hellenistic Greek and then Roman hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean area.

In the Chinese tradition, female wu specifically called wangyi ("women who raise the spirits of the dead") dominate the practice of necromancy. They are frequently widows and over thirty years of age. In contrast to the tongjii, the wangyi operate almost exclusively in private company and may charge fees for consultations. When consulted, a wangyi requires the name of the deceased and the date of death. Using incense sticks and "good luck papers," the medium invokes a particular shen to lead her to the kingdom of the dead. The shen takes possession of the medium and describes a tour of the underworld. When the correct soul is located (and it has confirmed the identification by describing, for instance, the circumstances of death), its needs are determined for later offerings and sacrifices. Often the soul (who assumes its former kinship status for the duration) speaks to family members present through the medium, in order of seniority. Rarely are more than two or three souls consulted during a séance. When the consultations are concluded, the shen emerges chanting from the gates of the underworld; the medium then stands up and falls back on the chair.

Another type of possession trance found in Chinese tradition is fu ji, or spirit writing, in which the medium receives the pronouncements or responses of the possessing shen in writing. Consultations may be held in temples, but they occur more often in private homes. The writing stick, or planchette (ji ), is in the shape of a Y, with the lower writing end often carved in the shape of a dragon's head. The top two handles of the stick are grasped by two bearers, one with mediumistic powers and the other a passive participant. A tray of sand is placed before the altar of the invoked shen, and the writing stick begins to move, often with initially violent motions, as if of its own accord. According to de Groot (18921910), the shen often identifies himself by saying "I am Kwan so-and-so of the Great Han dynasty; I have something to announce to you, people that are now seeking for medicines" (de Groot, vol. 6, 1910, p. 1303). An interpreter with pencil and paper stands ready to interpret the incomprehensible marks in the sand. Requests may be addressed to the inspiring shen silently, written on paper that is then burned, or read aloud. The answers or pronouncements are discussed by those present. When the session is to be concluded, the shen announces his decision to return. Often automatic writing is used, not to answer specific queries but to compile sacred writings consisting of poems, myths, and histories.

Oracular vision-trance

This altered state of consciousness presupposes Ernst Arbman's widely accepted dualistic distinction between the "free soul," which is passive during consciousness but active during unconsciousness (i.e., during a trance), and the "body soul," which endows the body with life and consciousness. This shamanistic experience, however, is only very rarely connected with oracles or prophecy. The ancient Greeks had legends about those whose souls wandered away during trancesfor example, Aristeas of Proconnesus, a devotee of Apollo (Herodotos, 4.1315), and Hermotimos of Clazomenae in western Asia Minor (Apollonius, Mirabilia 3; Pliny, Natural History 7.174). Two other Greek shamanistic figures shrouded in legend were Empedocles (c. 493433 bce) and his teacher Parmenides of Elea (late sixth to mid-fifth century bce). A great deal of the revelatory literature from the Greco-Roman world and the ancient Near East uses the literary motif of the vision-trance to secure divine revelation in a literary genre known as the apocalypse.

The magical diviner, a common figure in the ancient Greco-Roman world, used vision-trance to secure oracular revelation for himself and his clients. Though the oracles themselves have not survived, many magical recipe books have been preserved on Egyptian papyri dating from the third through the fifth century ce. Along with love magic, revelatory magic constitutes one of the dominant concerns of the magical papyri. In addition to the many methods of divination attested in the papyri (e.g., lamp divination, saucer divination, dream divination), several types of oracular magic are also in evidence. These include procedures for obtaining such things as visions (autopsia ), foreknowledge (prognōsis ), a supernatural assistant (paredros daimōn ), and oracular responses through a boy medium; there are also forms of bowl divination in which the summoned being would appear in a liquid. Several of these procedures seek to invoke the presence of a supernatural being (usually one of minor status) who will answer questions posed by the diviner regarding the future or the unknown, often on behalf of paying clients. In one example of a personal vision recipe, the diviner says "I am a prophet" and then continues with "Open my ears that you may grant oracles to me concerning the things about which I expect a response. Now, now! Quick, quick! Hurry, hurry! Tell me about those matters about which I asked you" (Karl Preisendanz and Albert Henrichs, Papyri Graecae Magicae, Stuttgart, 1974, vol. 2, papyrus 6, lines 323331; translated by the author of this article).

Characteristics of Oracles

The linguistic character of oracles does not necessarily render their meaning unambiguous. While lot oracles in a positive or negative mode and oracles dealing with sacrifice and expiation are usually clearly expressed, those dealing with other matters often require the skill of an interpreter. Outside the temple of Apollo at Delphi, freelance exēgētai ("expounders") would interpret the meaning of oracles for a fee. Similarly, interpreters are essential in the consultations of the dangji and in sessions involving automatic writing. In ancient Greek and Roman literature, the ambiguity of oracles that often find unexpected fulfillment became a common motif. Ambiguity also characterizes the prepared oracular responses in certain lot oracles, which must be phrased so as to apply to many situations. A similar ambiguity is found in the verses and commentaries accompanying each of the sixty-four hexagrams in the Yi jing (Book of changes).

The inherent ambiguity of oracles was an important factor leading to the formation of oracle collections. Because their original fulfillment remained in doubt, they could be subject to new interpretations. In the Greco-Roman world, professional oracle collectors and interpreters (chrēsmologoi ) sold their skills in the marketplace. They possessed oracle collections attributed to various sibyls and bakchides as well as to other legendary figures such as Orpheus and Musaeus. The archives of oracle temples often contained such collections, and in the Hellenistic period certain individuals traveled to the more famous oracles and made their own collections, which they published with commentary. Though the origin of the Confucian classic Yi jing is shrouded in legend, it too functions as an oracle book.

Function of Oracles

Oracles, like other forms of divination, are means of acquiring critical information regarding the future or the unknown that is unavailable through more conventional or rational channels. The very act of consultation requires that what may have been a vague and amorphous concern or anxiety be articulated in a specific, defined, and delimiting manner. Oracles function in a variety of ways, some of which concern the audience (i.e., the inquirer or recipient of an oracle), while others concern the mediums or specialists who obtain oracles, as well as the institutions with which these persons may be associated. In some instances divinatory techniques are consciously monopolized by the state as a means of both maintaining and legitimating political power, as for instance by the Shang dynasty of China. In other instances respected oracles beyond the control of the state are consulted in an attempt to provide religious legitimation for particular decisions or plans inherently fraught with peril or uncertainty (e.g., the utilization of Delphi by the Greek city-states). Rulers and nobles of states are necessarily concerned above all with matters of corporate interest such as war and peace, colonization, expiation and sacrifice, plagues and drought, crops and weather, coronations and succession, and ratification of laws and constitutions. Private individuals, on the other hand, tend to focus on such matters as sickness and health, travel, business ventures, marriage and childbirth, happiness and wealth, good fortune, and recovery of lost or stolen property. Seeking oracular advice on these and other vital matters helps reduce the risks inherent in human experience.

See Also

Asklepios; Delphi; Descent into the Underworld; Divination; Inspiration; Necromancy; Portents and Prodigies; Prophecy; Sibylline Oracles.


The only comparative study of oracles and prophecy in the ancient Mediterranean world (including Greco-Roman, Israelite, early Jewish, and early Christian oracular and prophetic traditions) is my Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983), which has a lengthy, up-to-date bibliography. Two important general cross-cultural studies of possession are Erika Bourguignon's Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change (Columbus, Ohio, 1973) and I. M. Lewis's Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (Harmondsworth, 1971). Still valuable is the older study by Traugott K. Oesterreich, Possession, Demoniacal and Other (New York, 1930).

The best book on the oracle of Delphi is Joseph Fontenrose's The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Operations (Berkeley, Calif., 1978), with a catalog of all known Delphic oracles in English translation classified according to grades of authenticity; it includes an extensive bibliography. The earlier standard work on Delphi, with a complete catalog of oracles in Greek, is H. W. Parke and D. E. W. Wormell's The Delphic Oracle, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1956); the more recent book by Fontenrose, however, is far superior.

An important introduction to some non-Apollonian oracles, including a collection in English translation of written oracle questions excavated at Dodona, is H. W. Parke's The Oracles of Zeus: Dodona, Olympia, Ammon (Oxford, 1967). Two very readable introductions to Greek oracles are H. W. Parke's Greek Oracles (London, 1967) and Robert Flacelière's Greek Oracles (London, 1965). An important discussion of the function of oracles in ancient Greek city-states is Martin P. Nilsson's Cults, Myths, Oracles, and Politics in Ancient Greece (1951; New York, 1972). An older but still useful comparative study of ancient Mediterranean views of revelation is Edwyn Robert Bevan's Sibyls and Seers: A Survey of Some Ancient Theories of Revelation and Inspiration (London, 1928). Though now out of date, the most detailed study of Greek divination, useful for putting oracular divination in proper context, is W. R. Halliday's Greek Divination: A Study of Its Methods and Principles (1913; reprint, Chicago, 1967). An English translation of the Greek Magical Papyri, including many procedures for securing oracles, is now available in The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, edited by Hans Dieter Betz (Chicago, 1985).

The most important recent study of the sibylline oracles is John J. Collins's The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism (Missoula, Mont., 1974). A recent translation of the extant fourteen books of sibylline oracles is available in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, N.Y., 1983), pp. 317472.

An older work that is still valuable for its consideration of Israelite and Arab traditions with a wide spectrum of prophetic phenomena including "divinatory prophecy," dreams and visions, ecstasy, and magic is Alfred Guillaume's Prophecy and Divination among the Hebrews and Other Semites (London, 1938). A book that includes many texts in English translation but that lacks critical discussion is Violet MacDermot's The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East (London, 1971). More recent is a book that considers Old Testament prophecy in the context of comparative studies of possession phenomena: Robert R. Wilson's Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, 1980), which includes an extensive bibliography.

The most important work in English on Chinese religion continues to be the magisterial work by J. J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China, 6 vols. (18921910; Taipei, 1967); particularly relevant is part 5 in volume 6, "The Priesthood of Animism," pp. 1187ff. A more up-to-date study is Qingkun Yang's Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors (Berkeley, Calif., 1961), where aspects of both ancient and modern divination and oracles are considered. Also useful is David Crockett Graham's Folk Religion in Southwest China (Washington, D.C., 1961). An excellent anthropological study of modern trance-possession cults among the Chinese of Singapore is Alan J. A. Elliot's Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore (London, 1955). The most important study of the oracle bones and shells of the Shang period, with an extensive bibliography, is David N. Keightley's Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley, Calif., 1978). Also useful is a book written by one of the excavators, Dong Zuobin's Xu jia gu nian biao (Tokyo, 1967).

New Sources

Among the numerous recent studies on the subject here the most important ones will be recalled. Interesting contributions are offered both by monographs or miscellaneous works. See in particular: Oracles et mantique en Grèce ancienne (= Kernos 3 [1990], with contributions by Pierre Bonnechere, Dominique Briquel, Luc Brisson, Gérard Capdeville, Jacqueline Champeaux, Emilio Suárez de la Torre and others); Oracles et prophéties dans l'antiquité: actes du colloque de Strasbourg, 1517 juin 1995, edited by Jean-Georges Heintz (Paris, 1997); Sibille e linguaggi oracolari. Mito storia tradizione. Atti del convegno Macerata-Norcia, settembre 1994, edited by Ileana Chirassi Colombo and Tullio Seppilli (Pisa, 1998).

As far as Classical Greece is concerned, the following contributions are particularly valuable: Philipp Vandenberg, Das Geheimnis der Orakel. Archäologen entschlüsseln das Mysterium antiker Voraussagen (Munich, 1982); Michael Maass, Das antike Delphi (Darmstadt, 1993); Marion Giebel, Das Orakel von Delphi (Stuttgart, 2001); Veit Rosenberger, Griechische Orakel (Stuttgart, 2001); Pierre Bonnechere, Trophonios de Lébadée: cultes et mythes d'une cité béotienne au miroir de la mentalité antique (Leiden, 2003); Jules Labarbe, "Du bon usage de l'oracle de Delphes." Kernos 7 (1994): 219230; Alexandre Avram and François Lefèvre, "Les cultes de Callatis et l'oracle de Delphes." Revue des Etudes Grecques 108 (1995): 723; Walter Burkert, "Olbia and Apollo of Didyma," in Apollo: Origins and Influences, edited by Jon Solomon, pp. 4960 (Tucson, 1994).

Various oracular inscriptions have been published from different places in Greece and Asia Minor. See the most relevant contributions offered in this ambit by Rheinold Merkelbach and Werner Peek in many issues of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

Anastasios-Phoebus Christidis, Soterios Dakaris, and Ioulia Vokotopoulou, "Magic in the Oracular Tablets from Dodona." In The World of Ancient Magic: Papers from the First International Samson Eitrem Seminar at the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 48 May 1997, edited by David R. Jordan, Hugo Montgomery and Einar Thomassen, pp. 6772 (Athens-Bergen 1999). Emilio Suárez de la Torre, "Sibylles, mantique inspirée et collections oraculaires," Kernos 7 (1994): 179205.

Hellenistic and late antique prophecies, together with their sycretistic features, are investigated by: Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Oracoli, Profeti, Sibille. Rivelazione e salvezza nel mondo antico (Rome, 2002); Arie Van der Kooij, The Oracle of Tyre: the Septuagint of Isaiah XXIII as Version and Vision (Leiden-New York, 1998); Roelof van den Broek, Apollo in Asia. De orakels van Clarus en Didyma in de tweede en derde eeuw na Chr. (Leiden, 1981); Santiago Montero, Trajano y la divinación (Madrid, 2000); David Potter, Prophets and Emperors Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

The relationship between Jewish apocalypticism and oracular patterns are deeply investigated. See for example: Valentin Nikiprowetzky, La Troisième Sibylle (Paris, 1970); David S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. A Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle (Oxford, 1990); Herbert W. Parke (edited by B. C. Mc Ging), Sibyls and Prophecy in Classical Antiquity (London-New York, 1992); John J. Collins, Seers, Sibyls and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism (Leiden, 1997). Bernard Teyssèdre, "Les représentations de la fin des temps dans le chant V des 'Oracles Sibyllins.'" Apocrypha 1 (1990): 147165.

Particular attention is also devoted to philosophical features, which are well outlined by Paolo Desideri, "Il De defectu oraculorum e la crisi della religione antica in Plutarco," in Italia sul Baetis: studi di storia romana in memoria di Fernando Gascó, edited by Emilio Gabba, Paolo Desideri, Sergio Roda, pp. 91102 (Torino, 1996); Polymnia Athanassiadi, "Philosophers and Oracles," Byzantion 62 (1992): 4562; Pier Franco Beatrice, "Towards a New Edition of Porphyry's Fragments against the Christians," in Sophies Maietores. Chercheurs de sagesse: hommage à Jean Pépin, edited by Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, Goulven Madec and Denis O'Brien, pp. 347355 (Paris, 1992); Enrico Livrea, "Sull'iscrizione teosofica di Enoanda," Zeitschrift für Papirologie und Epigraphik 122 (1998): 9096; Salvatore Pricoco, "Un oracolo di Apollo su Dio," Rivista di Storia e Letteratura Religiosa 23 (1987): 336; Salvatore Pricoco, "Per una storia dell'oracolo nella tarda antichità. Apollo Clario e Didimeo in Lattanzio," Augustinianum 29 (1989): 351374; Michael Stausberg, "Von den Chaldäischen Orakeln zu den Hundert Pforten und darüber hinaus," Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 3 (2001): 257272; Teresa Sardella, "Oracolo pagano e rivelazione cristiana nella Theosophia di Tubinga," in Le trasformazioni della cultura nella tarda antichità. Atti del Convegno tenuto a Catania 27 settembre2 ottobre 1982, pp. 545573 (Rome, 1985).

This late antique oracular collection is now edited by Pier Franco Beatrice, Anonymi monophysitae Theosophia. An Attempt at Reconstruction (Leiden, 2001).

As far as the so-called Chaldean Oracles are concerned, see the recent commented edition by Ruth Majercik, The Chaldean Oracles. Text, Translation, and Commentary (Leiden, 1989).

A popular collection of oracles dating to the imperial age is now edited by Stewart Randall, Sortes Astrampsychi (Munich, 2001).

David E. Aune (1987)

Revised Bibliography