In addition to that of Delphi, the most famous of Greek oracles (see delphi, oracle of), a number of other oracles, especially those of Zeus and Apollo, enjoyed a wide reputation in the Greek world.
Oracles of Zeus. At Dodona, Zeus replaced a pre-Greek divinity. The priests, who followed an archaic manner of life, employed as oracular devices the rustling of ancient oaks and the murmurs of a spring in the sacred grove; a device attested for the 4th century, b.c. was a noise made by a brazen kettle when it was struck by a little chain hanging beside it, after it had been set in motion by a wind blowing in the proper direction. The oracle was at its zenith in the age of Pindar (518–438 b.c.), but had practically ceased to function by the beginning of the Christian Era.
The oracle of Zeus at the oasis of Siwa was really an oracle of the Egyptian god Ammon. It was already consulted by Greek statesmen in the 5th century b.c., but its reputation was enhanced by the visit of Alexander the Great, who was greeted by the priest of the shrine as the son of Ammon. Just how the oracle was delivered to Alexander is unknown. Ordinarily, the responses of Zeus Ammon were given in the Egyptian manner, i.e., by the manipulation of a statue of Ammon carried in procession. At Olympia, the cult of Zeus probably took the place of the earlier cult of the goddess Gea. The location of the oracle was a large altar, which was formed from the ashes of the sacrificed animals and was sprinkled with water from the river Alpheus. The response of Zeus was sought by means of haruspicy and empyromancy.
Oracles of Apollo. The most important oracle after Delphi, and probably the oldest, was that of Didyma near Miletus. A pre-Greek divinity of the place was gradually equated with Apollo. For a long period the oracle was under the control of the priestly family of the Branchidae. It possessed the right of asylum, and this right was reconfirmed by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The responses were given by a priestess after preparation by fasting and prayer and after taking a foot bath in the spring, which bubbled beside the temple. The priestess sat on a tripod, and like the priestess of Delphi, she was probably in a state of ecstasy (Iamblichus, De myst. 3.2). The oracle lost its importance in the 2d century a.d. One of its last responses was heavy in consequences, for it led Diocletian to decide on his persecution of the Christians (Lactantius, De morte pers. 10).
The oracle of Apollo at Claros, near Colophon, was hardly less famous, and likewise possessed the right of asylum. The consultants assembled in a waiting-room and gave their names. The oracle chamber may originally have been a grotto in the mountainside, but later it was situated nearer the valley. The priest descended into the grotto, drank from the water of a spring, and then, without relying on orally expressed questions, but on telepathy, he gave his responses in verse (Tacitus, Ann. 2.54). From the 1st century a. d., questions could be presented also in writing. Even "speaking" statues of the god, which were sent into various regions, could be questioned directly. There is evidence that in the later imperial age, questions were presented at the oracle itself from places as far distant as northern Britain.
The island of Delos, the reputed birthplace of Apollo, also had an oracle. The voice of the god sounded from the fissures in Mt. Cynthus (Vergil, Aen. 3.90). In the age of the Seleucids, an oracle of Apollo, that of Daphne, was established near Antioch, and its procedure was modeled probably on that of Delphi.
Other Oracles. Oracles were often given through temple incubation. The healing hero-god Asclepius played a role in this kind of divination at his chief center, Epidaurus, and also in his temples at Athens, Rome, and elsewhere. Healing hero-gods, like Trophonius, delivered their oracles in the manner of oracles at Delphi or Claros.
necromancy was practiced for the sake of obtaining oracles, especially in those places that were regarded as entrances into the lower world—grottoes or subterranean passages, from which in many cases poisonous vapors were emitted. Such places and their vapors were thought of as means for receiving oracles. Among the best-known sites of this kind were Phigalia in Arcadia, and especially Cumae near Naples, the seat of the Cumaean sibyl, the most famous of all the sibyls.
Bibliography: j. e. fontenrose, Oxford Clasical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 624, with cross ref. and bibliog. k. latte, "Orakel," Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 18.1 (1942) 829–866. p. monceaux, "Oraculum," c. daremberg and e. saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines d'après les testes et les monuments, 5 v. in 9 (Paris 1877–1919) 4:214–223. a. bouchÉ-leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l'Antiquité, 3 v. (Paris 1879–82) old, but still basic.
or·a·cle / ˈôrəkəl/ • n. 1. a priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods in classical antiquity. ∎ a place at which such advice or prophecy was sought. ∎ a person or thing regarded as an infallible authority or guide on something: casting the attorney general as the oracle for and guardian of the public interest is simply impossible. 2. a response or message given by an oracle, typically one that is ambiguous or obscure.
Recorded from late Middle English, the word comes via Old French from Latin oraculum, from orare ‘speak’.
oracle bones the bones of a ritually-killed animal, carved with script and used in ancient China for divination.