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Shrines where a god was believed to speak to human beings through the mouths of priests or priestesses. The concept of the god becoming vocal was not confined to ancient Greece or Egypt. The Eskimos used to consult spirits for hunting and fishing expeditions. It is believed their wizards were as familiar with the art of giving ambiguous replies to their clients as were the Oracle keepers of Greece. The direction of the gods was also sought in all affairs of private and public life.

The Oracle of Delphi at Greece

In Greek mythology, when Jupiter wished to learn where the central point of the earth was, he dispatched two eagles, or two crows, named by Strabo. The birds took flight in opposite directions from sunrise and sunset, and they met at Delphi. The site was given the title "the navel of the earth" and the central point has white marble.

Delphi became a place of distinction. It was designated as oracular when the fumes coming from a neighboring cave were first discovered by a shepherd named Coretas. His attention was attracted to the spot by his goats gambolling and bleating more than usual.

It is not known whether these fumes arose due to an earthquake or whether they were generated by human act. According to the story, Coretas, on approaching the spot, was seized and uttered words deemed to be inspired. Later as the danger of inhaling the fumes without proper caution was known, the fissure was covered by a table, with a hole in the center and called a tripod, so that those who wished to try the experiment could safely.

Eventually, a young girl became the medium for responses, now deemed oracular and called "Pythian," as proceeding from Apollo, the slayer of Python, to whom Delphi was consecrated. A wooden structure of laurel branches was erected over the spot and the Pythoness sat on throne to receive Apollo's dictation.

As the oracle became better known, the structure was constructed of more costly materials. The tripod was made of gold but the lid continued to be made of brass. The Pythoness began by drinking from a "sacred" fountain (Castalia) adjoining the crypt (the waters were reserved for her only), chewing a laurel leaf, and placing a laurel crown on her head.

The person making an inquiry from the oracle first offered a victim and then, having written his question in a notebook, handed it to the Pythoness before she ascended the tripod. The inquisitor and the priestess wore laurel crowns. Originally the oracle spoke only on the seventh day of the month "Byssus." This was regarded as the birthday of Apollo and was called "Polypthonus."

According to Diodorus, virginity was originally a prerequisite in the Pythoness, due to the purity of that state and its relation to Diana; moreover, virgins were thought better adapted than other women to keep oracular mysteries secret and invio-late. But after an accident had occurred to one of the Pythonesses, the guardians of the temple permitted no one to fulfil the duties of the office until she had attained the age of 50.

The Oracle of Dodona

Another celebrated oracle, that of Jupiter, was at Dodona in Epirus, Greece (from which Jupiter derived the name of Dodonus). It was situated at the foot of Mount Tomarus, in a grove of oaks, and there answers were given by a woman named Pelias. "Pelias" means dove in the Attic dialect. The fable arose that the doves prophesied in the groves of Dodona.

The historian Herodotus (ca. 484-425 B.C.E.) cites a legendary tale concerning the origin of the oracle. Supposedly two priestesses from Thebes, Egypt, were carried away by Phoenician merchants; one went to Libya, where she founded the oracle of Jupiter Ammon, the other to Greece. There she had a temple built at the foot of an oak in honor of Jupiter, whose priestess she had been in Thebes. Herodotus added that this priestess was called a dove, because her language could not be understood.

The Dodonic and African oracles were probably connected. Herodotus stated that the manner of prophecy in Dodona was the same as that in Thebes, Egypt. Diana was worshiped in Dodona in conjunction with Zeus, and a female figure was associated with Amun in the Libyan Ammonium. According to some authors, there was an intoxicating spring at Dodona and later other materials were employed to produce the prophetic spirit.

Several copper bowls and bells were placed on a column beside the statute of a boy. When the wind blew a chain attached to a rod or scourge with three bones struck the metallic bowls and bells, and the sound was heard by the applicants. These Dodonian tones stated the proverb: Oes Dodonoekum an un-ceasing babbler.

The tree, the "incredible wonder," as Aeschylus calls it, was an oak, with evergreen leaves and edible acorns that the Greeks and Romans believed to be the first sustenance of mankind. The Pelasgi regarded this tree as the tree of life. In this tree the god was supposed to reside and the rustling of its leaves and the voices of birds showed his presence. When the questioners entered, the oak rustled and the Peliades said, "Thus speaks Zeus." Incense was burned beneath it. According to the legend, sacred doves continually inhabited the tree, like the Marsoor oracle at Tiora Mattiene, where a sacred hawk predicted the future from the top of a wooden pillar.

At the foot of the oak, a cold spring gushed and supposedly the inspired priestesses prophesied from this murmur. According to legend, when lighted torches were thrust into this fountain they would be extinguished and would rekindle without assistance. Ernst von Lasaulx in Das pelasgische Orakel d. Zeus zu Dodona speculated:

"That extinction and rekindling has, perhaps, the mystical signification that the usual sober life of the senses must be extinguished, that the prophetic spirit dormant in the soul may be aroused. The torch of human existence must expire, that a divine one may be lighted; the human must die that the divine may be born; the destruction of individuality is the awakening of God in the soul, or, as the mystics say, the setting of sense is the rising of truth."

It appears predictions were drawn from the tones of the Dodonian brass bowls, the rustling of the oak, and the murmuring of the well. The Dodonian columns appear to express the following: The medium-sized brazen bowl was a hemisphere, and symbolized heaven; the boy-like male statue was a figure of the Demiurgos, or constructor of the universe; the bell-like notes were a symbol of the harmony of the universe and music of the spheres. That the Demiurgos was represented as a boy is in the spirit of Egypto-Pelasgian theology as it reigned in Samothrace (Greek Island). It is believed the bell told all who came to Dodona to question the god that they were on holy ground, must inquire with pure hearts, and be silent when the god replied. Those who questioned the god were also obliged to take a purificatory bath in the temple, similar to that of the Delphian Pythia when preparing herself for prophecy.

Besides soothsaying from signs, divination by the prophetic movements of the mind was practiced. Sophocles called the Dodonean priestesses divinely inspired. Plato (Phaedrus) stated the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona had done much good while in a state he termed "sacred madness," but while in their senses accomplished little or nothing.

We may infer from this that the Delphian Pythia as well as the Dodonian priestesses did not give their oracles in the state of waking consciousness but with the assistance of incense and drink. Aristides stated the priestesses at Dodona neither knew (before being seized upon by the spirit) what would be said, nor remembered afterward when their natural consciousness returned, what they had uttered, so that all others, rather than they, knew it.

The Oracle of Jupiter Trophonius

According to Pausanias (ca. 470 B.C.E.), Trophonius was the most skillful architect of his day. There are various opinions regarding the origin of his oracle. Some say he was swallowed up by an earthquake in the cave and became prophetic; others, that after having completed the Adytum of Apollo at Delphi, he declined asking any specific pay, but requested the god to grant him whatever was the greatest benefit a man could receiveand three days later he was found dead.

This oracle was discovered after two years, when the Pythoness ordered the starving population who applied to her to consult Trophonius in Lebadaea. The deputies sent for that purpose could not find any trace of such an oracle until Saon, the oldest among them, followed the flight of a swarm of bees.

The responses were given by Trophonius to the inquirer, who descend into a cave. The inquirer resided for a certain number of days in a sanctuary, performed ceremonial purification, and abstained from hot baths, but dipped in the river Hercyna and was supplied with meat from the victims he sacrificed.

From an inspection of the entrails, a soothsayer decided if Trophonius could be consulted. The night of the decent a ram was sacrificed to Agamedes at the mouth of the cave. When the signal had been given, the priests led the inquirer to the river Hercyna, where he was anointed and washed by two Lebadaean youths, thirteen years of age, named "Hermai."

He was then carried to the two spring-heads of the stream, and there he drank first of Lethe to forget all past events and present his mind to the oracle as a "tabula rasa" (cleaned tablet); and secondly of Mnemosyne, to remember every occur-rence about to happen within the cave. An image, reputed to be the workmanship of Daedalus, was then shown to him. Because of its sanctity, no other eyes but those of a person about to undertake the adventure of the cave were ever permitted to see it.

Next he was clad in a linen robe, tied with ribbons, and shod with sandals peculiar to the country. The entrance to the oracle was a very narrow aperture in a grove on the summit of a mountain, protected by a marble wall about two cubits in height with brass spikes above it. The upper part of the cave was artificial, like an oven. No steps were cut in the rock; to descend a ladder was brought to the spot on each occasion.

On approaching the mouth of the temple, the adventurer lay flat, first inserting his feet into the aperture, then drawing up his knees and the remainder of his body, until caught by a hidden force and carried downward like a whirlpool.

The responses were given sometimes by a vision, sometimes by words, and a forcible exit was then made through the original entrance, feet first. Supposedly there was only one instance on record of any person who had descended failing to return.

Immediately upon returning from the cavern, the inquirer was placed on a seat called that of Mnemosyne, not far from the entrance. The priests demanded an account of everything he had seen and heard; he was then carried once again to the sanctuary of good fortune, where he remained for some time.

The antiquary Dr. Edward D. Clarke (1769-1822) during his visit to Lebadaea found everything belonging to the hieron of Trophonius in its original state, except the narrow entrance to the temple was filled with rubbish. The Turkish governor was afraid of civil unrest if he gave permission to clean the aperture. In modern times, the waters of Lethe and Mnemosyne are used for the wash of Lebadaea.

The Oracles of Delos and Branchus

The oracle of "Delos" was derived from the nativity of Apollo and Diana in that island. At Dindyma, or Didyma, near Mile-tus, Apollo presided over the oracle of the "Branchidae," so called from either one of his sons or of his favorites Branchus of Thessaly, whom he instructed in soothsaying while alive and canonized after death.

The responses were given by a priestess who bathed and fasted for three days before consultation, then sat upon an axle or bar, with a charming-rod in her hand, and inhaled the steam from a hot spring. Offerings and ceremonies were necessary, including baths, fasting, and solitude.

The Oracle at Colophon

Of the oracle of Apollo at Colophon, Iamblichus (ca. 330

C.E.) left an account relating that it prophesied by drinking water:

"It is known that a subterranean spring exists there, from which the prophet drinks; after he has done so, and has performed many consecrations and sacred customs on certain nights, he predicts the future; but he is invisible to all who are present. That this water can induce prophecy is clear, but how it happens, no one knows, says the proverb.

"It is believed, God is in all things, and is reflected in this spring, thereby giving it prophetic power. Supposedly the inspiration of the water prepares and purifies the light of the soul, to receive the divine spirit. The soothsayer uses this spirit like a work-tool over which he has no control. After the moment of prediction he does not always remember what has happened. Before drinking the water, the soothsayer must fast for day and night and observe religious customs in order to receive the god."

The Oracle of Amphiaraus

Another celebrated oracle was Amphiaraus, who distinguished himself in the Theban war. He was venerated at Oropus, in Boeotia, as a seer. This oracle was consulted more in sickness than on any other occasion. The applicants had to lie upon the skin of a sacrificed ram and during sleep had the remedies of their diseases revealed to them. Not only were sacrifices and ceremonial purifications performed here, but the priests also prescribed other preparations for the minds of the sleepers to be enlightened. They had to fast one day and refrain from wine for three.

Amphilochus, the son of Amphiaraus, had a similar oracle at Mallos, in Cilicia, which Pausanias called the most trustworthy and credible of the age. Lucian mentioned that all those who wished to question the oracle had to lay down two oboles (small silver coins).

Egyptian Oracles

The oracles of ancient Egypt were as numerous as those of Greece. Herodotus claimed that at least seven gods in Egypt spoke by oracles. Supposedly, the most reliable were considered to give an intimation of their intentions by means of "re-markable events." These were carefully observed by the Egyptians, who recorded these events.

The Egyptians also considered the fate of a person was determined by the day of his birthevery day belonged to a special god. The oracle of Jupiter Ammon and the same deity at Thebes existed from the twentieth to the twenty-second Dynasty. He was consulted not only concerning the fate of empires but also for the identification of a thief. In all serious matters, however, it was sought to ascertain his views. Those about to make their wills sought his oracle and judgments were ratified by "his" word. For example, surviving inscriptions described what occurred when a king consulted a god:

"The King presented himself before the god and preferred a direct question, so framed as to admit of an answer by simple yes or no; in reply the god nodded an affirmative, or shook his head in negation.

"This has suggested the idea that the oracles were manipulated statues of divinities mechanically set in motion by the priests. But as yet no such statues have been found in the Valley of the Nile. It was customary for the king to visit the god alone and in secret. It is believed the king presented himself on such occasions before the sacred animal the god was incarnate, believing the divine will would be manifested by its movements." (See also moving statues )

The Apis bull also possessed oracles, as did Bes, the god of pleasure or of the senses, whose oracle was located at Abydos.

American Oracles

Among the peoples of the Americas many of the principal deities acted as oracles. For example, the ancient inhabitants of Peru, the huillcas, believed the noises made by serpents, trees, and rivers to be of the quality of articulate speech. Both the Huillcamayu and the Apurimac rivers at Cuzco were huillca oracles of this kind, as their names, "Huillcariver" and "Great Speaker," denote. These oracles often set the mandate of the Inca himself, occasionally supporting popular opinion against his policy.

As late as the nineteenth century, the Peruvian Indians of the Andes mountain range continued to believe in oracles they had inherited from their fathers. One account of this says they:

" admit an evil being, the inhabitant of the centre of the earth, whom they consider as the author of their misfortunes, and at the mention of whose name they tremble. The most shrewd among them take advantage of this belief to obtain respect, and represent themselves as his delegates. Under the denomination of mohanes, or agoreros, they are consulted even on the most trivial occasions. They preside over the intrigues of love, the health of the community, and the taking of the field. Whatever repeatedly occurs to defeat their prognostics, falls on themselves; and they are wont to pay for their deceptions very dearly. They chew a species of vegetable called piripiri, and throw it into the air, accompanying this act by certain recitals and incantations, to injure some, to benefit others, to procure rain and the inundation of rivers, or, on the other hand, to occasion settled weather, and a plentiful store of agricultural productions. Any such result, having been casually verified on a single occasion, suffices to confirm the Indians in their faith, although they may have been cheated a thousand times."

Supposedly there is an instance on record of how the huillca could refuse on occasion to recognize even royalty itself. Manco, the Inca who had been given the kingly power by Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro, offered a sacrifice to one of these oracular shrines. The oracle refused to recognize him; through the medium of its guardian priest, the oracle stated Manco was not the rightful Inca. According to legend Manco had the rock shaped oracle thrown down, whereupon its guardian spirit emerged in the form of a parrot and flew away. But upon Manco commanding the parrot be pursued, the spirit sought another rock to receive it, and the spirit of the huillca was transferred.

Similar to the idols of Mexico, most of the principal huacas of Peru seem to also have been oracles. It is believed the guardians of the speaking huacas were not influenced by the Apu-Ccapac-Inca himself. There was a tradition that the Huillacumu, a venerable huillac whom the rest acknowledged as their head, at one time possessed jurisdiction over the supreme war chiefs.


Bouché-Leclercq, A. Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité. Paris, 1879. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Dempsey, T. The Delphic Oracles. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell,1918.

Halliday, W. R. Greek Divination. London: Macmillan, 1913. Reprint, Chicago: Argonaut, 1967.

Parke, Herbert W. Greek Oracles. London: Hutchinson, 1967.

. Oracles of Zeus. Oxford: Blackwell, 1967. Parke, Herbert W., and Donals Ernest Wilson Wormell. The Delphic Oracles. Oxford: Blackwell, 1956.

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