Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

 p836  Oraculum

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp836‑843 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ORA′CULUM (μαντεῖον, χρηστήριον) was used by the ancients to designate the revelations made by the deity to man, as well as the place in which such revelations were made. The deity was in none of these places believed to appear in person to man, and to communicate to him his will or knowledge of the future; but all oracular revelations were made through some kind of medium, which, as we shall see hereafter, was different in the different places where oracles existed. It may, on first sight, seem strange that there were, comparatively speaking, so few oracles of Zeus, the father and ruler of gods and men. But although, according to the belief of the ancients, Zeus himself was the first source of all oracular revelations, yet he was too far above men to enter with them into any close relation; other gods therefore, especially Apollo, and even heroes, acted as mediators between Zeus and men, and formed as it were the organs through which he communicated his will (Soph. Oed. Col. 629; Aesch. Eum. 19, 611, &c.). The fact that the ancients consulted the will of the gods on all important occasions of public and private life, arose partly from the universal desire of men to know the issue of what they are going to undertake, and partly from the great reverence for the gods, so peculiar to the ancients, by which they were led not to undertake anything of importance without their sanction; for it should be borne in mind that an oracle was not merely a revelation to satisfy the curiosity of man, but at the same time a sanction or authorisation by the deity of what man was intending to do or not to do. We subjoin a list of the Greek oracles, classed according to the deities to whom they belonged.

I. Oracles of Apollo.

1. The oracle of Delphi was the most celebrated of all the oracles of Apollo. Its ancient name was Pytho, which is either of the same root as πυθέσθαι, to consult, or, according to the Homeric hymn on Apollo (185, &c.) derived from πύθεσθαι, to putrefy, with reference to the nature of the locality. Respecting the topography of the temple of Apollo see Pausanias (X.14 §7) and Müller (in Dissen's Pindar, II. p628). In the innermost sanctuary (the μύχος ἄδυτον or μέγαρον), there was the statue of Apollo, which was, at least, in later times, of gold; and before it there burnt upon  p837 an altar an eternal fire, which was fed only with fir-wood (Aesch. Choeph. 1036; Plut. De Εἰ ap. Delph.). The inner roof of the temple was covered all over with laurel garlands (Aesch. Eum. 39), and upon the altar laurel was burnt as incense. In the centre of this temple there was a small opening (χάσμα) in the ground from which, from time to time, an intoxicating smoke arose, which was believed to come from the well of Cassotis, which vanished into the ground close by the sanctuary (Paus. X.24 §5). Over this chasm there stood a high tripod, on which the Pythia, led into the temple by the prophetes (προφήτης), took her seat whenever the oracle was to be consulted. The smoke rising from under the tripod affected her brain in such a manner that she fell into a state of delirious intoxication, and the sounds which she uttered in this state were believed to contain the revelations of Apollo. These sounds were carefully written down by the prophetes, and afterwards communicated to the persons who had come to consult the oracle (Diod. XVI.26; Strabo, IX p419, &c.; Plut. de Orac. Def.).

The Pythia (the προφῆτις) was always a native of Delphi (Eurip. Ion, 92), and when she had once entered the service of the god she never left it, and was never allowed to marry. In early times she was always a young girl; but after one had been seduced by Echecrates the Thessalian, the Delphians made a law that in future no one should be elected as prophetess who had not attained the age of fifty years; but in remembrance of former days the old woman was always dressed as a maiden (Diod. l.c.). The Pythia was generally taken from some family of poor country-people. At first there was only one Pythia at a time; but when Greece was in its most flourishing state, and when the number of those who came to consult the oracle was very great, there were always two Pythias who took their seat on the tripod alternately, and a third was kept in readiness in case some accident should happen to either of the two others (Plut. Quaest. Graec. c9). The effect of the smoke on the whole mental and physical constitution is said to have sometimes been so great, that in her delirium she leaped from the tripod, was thrown into convulsions, and after a few days died (Plut. de Orac. Def. c51).

At first oracles were given only once every year, on the seventh of the month of Bysius (probably the same as Πύθιος, or the month for consulting), which was believed to be the birthday of Apollo (Plut. Quaest. Gr. c9), but as this one day in the course of time was not found sufficient, certain days in every month were set apart for the purpose (Plut. Alex. 14). The order, in which the persons who came to consult were admitted, was determined by lot (Aesch. Eum. 31; Eurip. Ion, 422); but the Delphian magistrates had the power of granting the right of Προμαντεία, i.e. the right of consulting first, and without the order being determined by lot, to such individuals or states as had acquired claims on the gratitude of the Delphians, or whose political ascendancy seemed to give them higher claims than others. Such was the case with Croesus and the Lydians (Herod. I.54), with the Lacedaemonians (Plut. Per. 21), and Philip of Macedonia (Demosth. c. Phil. III. p119). It appears that those who consulted the oracle had to pay a certain fee, for Herodotus states that the Lydians were honoured with ἀτελεία by the Delphians. The Pythia always spent three days, before she ascended the tripod, in preparing herself for the solemn act, and during this time she fasted, and bathed in the Castalian well, and dressed in a simple manner; she also burnt in the temple laurel leaves and flour of barley upon the altar of the god (Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 230; Plut. de Pyth. Or. c6). Those who consulted the oracle had to sacrifice a goat, or an ox, or a sheep, and it was necessary that these victims should be healthy in body and soul, and to ascertain this they had to undergo a peculiar scrutiny. An ox received barley, and a sheep chick-peas, to see whether they ate them with appetite; water was poured over the goats, and if this put them into a thorough tremble the victim was good (Plut. de Or. Def. 49). The victim which was thus found eligible was called ὁσιωτῆρ (Plut. Quaest. Gr. 9). Wachsmuth (Hellen. Alt. II p588, 2d ed.) states that all who came to consult the oracle wore laurel-garlands surrounded with ribands of wool; but the passages from which this opinion is derived, only speak of such persons as came to the temple as suppliants (Herod. VII.14; Aesch. Choeph. 1035).

The Delphians, or more properly speaking the noble families of Delphi, had the superintendence of the oracle. Among the Delphian aristocracy, however, there were five families which traced their origin to Deucalion, and from each of these one of the five priests, called ὅσιοι, was taken (Eurip. Ion, 411; Plut. Quaest. Gr. c9). Three of the names of these families only are known, viz. the Cleomantids, the Thracids (Diod. XVI.24; Lycurg. c. Leocrat. p158), and the Laphriads (Hesych. s.v.).

The ὅσιοι, together with the high priest or prophetes, held their offices for life, and had the control of all the affairs of the sanctuary and of the sacrifices (Herod. VIII.136). That these noble families had an immense influence upon the oracle is manifest from numerous instances, and it is not improbable that they were its very soul, and that it was they who dictated the pretended revelations of the god (see especially, Lycurg. c. Leocrat. p158; Herod. VII.141, VI.66; Plut. Pericl. 21; Eurip. Ion, 1219, 1222, 1110).

Most of the oracular answers which are extant, are in hexameters, and in the Ionic dialect. Sometimes, however, Doric forms also were used (Herod. IV.157, 159). The hexameter was, according to some accounts, invented by Phemonoë, the first Pythia. This metrical form was chosen, partly because the words of the god were thus rendered more venerable, and partly because it was easier to remember verse than prose (Plut. de Pyth. Or. 19). Some of the oracular verses had metrical defects, which the faithful among the Greeks accounted for in an ingenious manner (Plut. l.c. c5). In the times of Theopompus, however, the custom of giving the oracles in verse seems to have gradually ceased; they were henceforth generally in prose, and in the Doric dialect spoken at Delphi. For when the Greek states had lost their political liberty, there was little or no occasion to consult the oracle on matters of a national or political nature, and the affairs of ordinary life, such as the sale of slaves, the cultivation of a field, marriages, voyages, loans of money, and the like, on which the oracle was then mostly consulted, were little calculated to be spoken of in lofty poetical strains  p838 (Plut. de Pyth. Or. 28). When the oracle of Delphi lost its importance in the eyes of the ancients, the number of persons who consulted it naturally decreased, and in the days of Plutarch one Pythia was, as of old, sufficient to do all the work, and oracles were only given on one day in every month.

The divine agency in Pytho is said to have first been discovered by shepherds who tended their flocks in the neighbourhood of the chasm, and whose sheep, when approaching the place, were seized with convulsions (Diod. XVI.26; Plut. de Defect. Or. c42). Persons who came near the place showed the same symptoms, and received the power of prophecy. This at last induced the people to build a temple over the sacred spot. According to the Homeric hymn on Apollo, this god was himself the founder of the Delphic oracle, but the local legends of Delphi stated that originally it was given to Apollo as a present (Aeschyl. Eum. 3, &c.; compare Paus. X.5; Ovid. Metam. I.321; Argum. ad Pind. Pyth.; Tzetz. ad Lycophr. 202). Other traditions again, and these perhaps the most ancient and genuine, represented Apollo as having gained possession of the oracle by a struggle, which is generally described as a fight, with Python, a dragon, who guarded the oracle of Gaea or Themis.

The oracle of Delphi, during its best period, was believed to give its answers and advice to every one who came with a pure heart, and had no evil designs; if he had committed a crime, the answer was refused until he had atoned for it (Herod. I.19, 22), and he who consulted the god for bad purposes was sure to accelerate his own ruin (Herod. IV.86; Paus. II.18 §2). No religious institution in all antiquity obtained such a paramount influence, not only in Greece, but in all countries around the Mediterranean, in all matters of importance, whether relating to religion or to politics, to private or to public life, as the oracle of Delphi. When consulted on a subject of a religious nature, the answer was invariably of a kind calculated not only to protect and preserve religious institutions, but to command new ones to be established (Demosth. c. Mid. 15; Herod. V.82, I.165, &c.), so that it was the preserver and promoter of religion throughout the ancient world. Colonies were seldom or never founded without having obtained the advice and the directions of the Delphic god (Cic. de Div. I.1). Hence the oracle was consulted in all disputes between a colony and its metropolis, as well as in cases where several states claimed to be the metropolis of a colony (Thucyd. I.25, 28; Diod. XV.18).

The Delphic oracle had at all times a leaning in favour of the Greeks of the Doric race; but the time when it began to lose its influence must be dated from the period when Athens and Sparta entered upon their struggle for the supremacy in Greece; for at this time the partiality for Sparta became so manifest, that the Athenians and their party began to lose all reverence and esteem for it (Plut. Demosth. 20), and the oracle became a mere instrument in the hands of a political party. In the times of Cicero and Plutarch many believed that the oracle had lost the powers which it had possessed in former days; but it still continued to be consulted down to the times of the emperor Julian, until at last it was entirely done away with by Theodosius.

Notwithstanding the general obscurity and ambiguity of most of the oracles given at Delphi, there are many also which convey so clear and distinct a meaning, that they could not possibly be misunderstood, so that a wise agency at the bottom of the oracles cannot be denied. The manner in which this agency has been explained at different times, varies greatly according to the spirit of the age. During the best period of their history the Greeks, generally speaking, had undoubtedly a sincere faith in the oracle, its counsels and directions. When the sphere in which it had most benefitted Greece became narrowed and confined to matters of a private nature, the oracle could no longer command the veneration with which it had been looked upon before. The pious and believing heathens, however, thought that the god no longer bestowed his former care upon the oracle, and that he was beginning to withdraw from it; while free-thinkers and unbelievers looked upon the oracle as a skilful contrivance of priestcraft which had then outgrown itself. This latter opinion has also been adopted by many modern writers. The early Christians, seeing that some extraordinary power must in several cases have been at work, represented it as an institution of the evil spirit. In modern times opinions are very much divided. Hüllmann, for example, has endeavoured to show that the oracle of Delphi was entirely managed and conducted by the aristocratic families of Delphi, which are thus described as forming a sort of hierarchical senate for all Greece. If so, the Delphic senate surely was the wisest of all in the history of the ancient world. Klausen, on the other hand, seems to be inclined to allow some truly divine influence, and at all events thinks that even in so far as it was merely managed by men, it acted in most cases according to lofty and pure moral principles.

The modern literature on the Delphic oracle is very rich; the most important works are:— C. F. Wilster, De Religione et Oraculo Apollinis Delphici, Hafniae, 1827; H. Piotrowski, De Gravitate Oraculi Delphici, Lipsiae, 1829; R. H. Klausen, in Ersch und Gruber's Encyclopädie, s.v. Orakel; K. D. Hüllmann, Würdigung des Delphischen Orakels, Bonn, 1837; W. Götte, Das Delphische Orakel, in seinem politischen, religiösen und sittlichen Einfluss auf die alte Welt, Leipzig, 1839.

2. Oracle at Abae in Phocis. An oracle was believed to have existed there from very early times (Paus. X.35 §2), and was held in high esteem by the Phocians (Soph. Oed. Tyr. 899; Herod. VIII.33). Some years before the Persian invasion, the Phocians gained a victory over the Thessalians, in which they obtained, among other spoils, four thousand shields, half of which they dedicated in the temple of Apollo at Abae, and half in that of Delphi (Herod. VIII.27). The oracle was like many others consulted by Croesus; but he does not seem to have found it agreeing with his wishes (Herod. I.46). In the Persian invasion of Xerxes, the temple of Abae was burnt down, and, like all other temples destroyed in this invasion, it was never rebuilt. The oracle itself, however, remained, and before the battle of Leuctra it promised victory to the Thebans; but in the Phocian or sacred war, when some Phocian fugitives had taken refuge in the ruins, they were entirely destroyed by the Thebans (Paus. l.c.). But even after this calamity the  p839 oracle seems to have been consulted, for the Romans, from reverence for it, allowed the inhabitants of Abae to govern themselves. Hadrian built a small temple by the side of the old one, some walls of which were still standing as ruins in the time of Pausanias (X.35 §2, 3).

3. Oracle on the hill of Ptoon, in the territory of Thebes. The oracle was here given through the medium of a man called πρόμαντις, and the first promantis was said to have been Teneros, a son of Apollo (Strab. IX p413; Paus. IX.33 §3). The oracles were usually given in the Aeolian dialect, but when Mys, the Carian, consulted the god, the answer was given in the Carian language (Paus. l.c.), so that instead of the three Thebans who generally wrote down the oracles, the Carian was obliged of do it himself (Herod. VIII.135). When Alexander the Great destroyed Thebes, this oracle also perished (Paus. IX.33 §3). In the time of Plutarch the whole district was completely desolate (De Orac. Def. c8).

4. Oracle of Apollo at Ismenion, in Boeotia, south of Thebes. The temple of Apollo Ismenios was the national sanctuary of the Thebans. The oracle was here not given by inspiration, as in other places, but from the inspection of the victims (Herod. VIII.134). On one occasion it gave its prophecy from a huge cobweb in the temple of Demeter (Diod. XVII.10; compare Paus. IX.10 §2, &c.).

5. Oracle of Apollo at Hysiae, on the frontiers of Attica. This place contained an oracle of Apollo with a sacred well, from which those drank who wished to become inspired. In the time of Pausanias the oracle had become extinct (Paus. IX.2 §1).

6. Oracle of Apollo at Tegyra, was an ancient and much frequented oracle in Boeotia, which was conducted by prophets. The Pythia herself on one occasion declared this to be the birth-place of Apollo. In the time of Plutarch the whole district was a wilderness (Plut. de Orac. Def. c8, Pelop. 16; Steph. Byz. s.v. Τέγυρα).

7. Oracle of Apollo in the village of Eutresis, in the neighbourhood of Leuctra (Steph. Byz. s.v. Εὔτρησις; Eustath. ad Iliad. II.502). This oracle became extinct during the Macedonian period (Plut. de Orac. Def. c5).

Oracle of Apollo at Orobiae, in Euboea. Apollo here bore the surname of the Selinuntian (Strab. X p445)

9. Oracle of Apollo in the Lyceum at Argos. The oracle was here given by a prophetess (Plut. Pyrrh. 31).

10. Oracle of Apollo Deiradiotes, on the acropolis of Argos. The oracle was given by a prophetess, who was obliged to abstain from matrimonial connections once in every month. She was believed to become inspired by tasting of the blood of a lamb which was sacrificed during the night. This oracle continued to be consulted in the days of Pausanias (II.24 §1).

11. Oracle of Apollo at Didyma, usually called the oracle of the Branchidae, in the territory of Miletus. This was the oracle most generally consulted by the Ionians and Aeolians (Herod. I.158). The temple, however, was said to have been founded previously to the arrival of the Ionians on the coast of Asia (Paus. VII.2 §4), and the altar was said to have been built by Heracles, and the temple by Branchus, a son of Apollo, who had come from Delphi as a purifying priest (Paus. V.13 §6; Strab. XIV p634). Hence this oracle, like that of Delphi, combined purifying or atoning rites with the practice of prophesying (Müller, Dor. II.2 §6). The real antiquity of this oracle, however, cannot be traced further back than the latter half of the 7th century before our aera (Soldan, p553, &c.). The priests called Branchidae, who had the whole administration of the oracle, were said to be the descendants of Branchus. The high priest bore the name Stephanephorus. Among them was one family which possessed the hereditary gift of prophecy, and was called the family of the Euangelidae (Conon, 44). The oracle was under the especial management of a prophet, whose office did not last for life. The oracles were probably inspired in a manner similar to that at Delphi (Paus. V.7 §3). Croesus made to this oracle as munificent presents as to that of Delphi (Herod. I.46, &c.). The principles which it followed in its counsels and directions were also the same as those followed by the Delphians. The Persians burnt and plundered the temple as had been predicted by the Pythia of Delphi (Herod. VI.19); but it was soon restored and adorned with a fine brazen statue of Apollo (Paus. II.10 §4, IX.10 §2; compare Müller, Ancient Art and its Remains, §86), which Xerxes on his retreat carried with him to Ecbatana. A part of the Branchidae had surrendered to Xerxes the treasures of the temple, and were at their own request transplanted to Bactriana (Strabo, l.c.), where their descendants are said to have been severely punished by Alexander for their treachery (Curt. VII.5). Seleucus sent the statue of Apollo back to Didyma, because the oracle had saluted him as king (Paus. I.16 §3; Diod. IX.90). The oracle continued to be consulted after the faithlessness of its ministers. some ruins of the temple at Didyma are still extant. (Compare the Commentators on Herod. I.92; Suid. s.v. Βραγχίδαι; Droysen, Gesch. Alex. des Grossen, p307; and an excellent essay by W. G. Soldan, Das Orakel der Branchiden, in Zimmermann's Zeitschrift für die Alterthumswissenschaft, 1841. No. 66, &c.)

12. Oracle of Apollo at Claros, in the territory of Colophon. It was said to have been founded by Cretans under Rhacius, previous to the settlement of the Ionians in Asia Minor. The early legends put this oracle in connection with Delphi, from whence Manto, the daughter of Teiresias, came to Claros, married Rhacius and gave birth to Mopsus, from whom the prophets of Claros were probably believed to be descended (Paus. VI.3 §§1, 2). This oracle was of great celebrity, and continued to be consulted even at the time of the Roman emperors (Paus. VII.5 §1, &c.; Strab. XIV p642; Tacit. Annal. XII.22). The oracles were given through an inspired prophet, who was taken from certain Milesian families. He was generally a man without any refined education, had only the names and the number of the persons who consulted the oracle stated to him, and then descended into a cavern, drank of the water from a secret well, and afterwards pronounced the oracle in verse (Tacit. Annal. II.54).

13. Oracle of Apollo at Grynea, in the territory of the Myrinaeans (Hecat. Fragm. 211).

14. Oracle of Apollo Gonnapaeus, in Lesbos (Schol. Aristoph. Nub. 145).

15. Oracle of Apollo at Abdera (Pindar, ap. Tzetzes, Lycophr. 445).

 p840  16. Oracle of Apollo in Delos, which was only consulted in summer (Callim. Hymn, in Del. I; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. IV.143).

17. Oracle of Apollo at Patara, in Lycia, was only consulted in winter. The prophetess (πρόμαντις) spent a night in the temple to wait for the communications which the god might make to her (Herod. I.182; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. IV.143).

18. Oracle of Apollo at Telmessus. The priests of this institution did not give their answers by inspiration, but occupied themselves chiefly with the interpretation of dreams, whence Herodotus (I.78; compare Cic. de Div. I.41; Arrian, II.3) calls them ἐξηγηταί. But they also interpreted other marvellous occurrences. Near Telmessus there was another oracle of Apollo, where those who consulted it had to look into a well, which showed them in an image the answer to their question (Paus. VII.21 §6).

19. Oracle of Apollo at Mallos, in Cilicia (Strab. XIV p675, &c.; Arrian, II.5).

20. Oracle of the Sarpedonian Apollo, in Cilicia. (Diod. Exc. XXXVIII.12).

21. Oracle of Apollo at Hybla, in Caria (Athen. XV p672).

22. Oracle of Apollo at Hiera Kome, on the Maeander, a celebrated oracle which spoke in good verses (Liv. XXXVIII.13; Steph. Byz. s.v.).

Thayer's Note (on the Steph. Byz. citation, to save you a pointless trip): In full the passage reads

Ἱερὰ κώμη, δῆμος Καρίας. Πολύβιος ἑκκαιδεκάτῳ. τὸ ἐθνικὸν Ἱεροκωμήτης.

("Hiera Kome, a place in Caria. Polybius, in the sixteenth book. The demonym is Hierokometes.")

— and that passage in Polybius is utterly incidental.

II. Oracles of Zeus

1. Oracle of Zeus at Olympia. In this as in the other oracles of Zeus the god did not reveal himself by inspiration, as Apollo did in almost all of his oracles, but he merely sent signs which men had to interpret. Those who came to consult the oracle of Olympia offered a victim, and the priest gave his answers from the nature of the several parts of the victim, or from accidental circumstances accompanying the sacrifice (Herod. VIII.134; Strab. VIII p353). The prophets or interpreters here belonged to the family of the Iamids. In early times the oracle was much resorted to, and Sophocles (Oed. Tyr. 900) mentions it along with the most celebrated oracles; but in later times it was almost entirely neglected, probably because oracles from the inspection of victims might be obtained anywhere. The spot, where the oracles were given at Olympia, was before the altar of Zeus (Pind. Ol. VI.70). It was especially those who intended to take part in the Olympic games that consulted the oracle about their success (Pind. Ol. VIII.2), but other subjects also were brought before it.

2. Oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Here the oracle was given from sounds produced by the wind. The sanctuary was situated on an eminence (Aeschyl. Prom. 830). Although in a barbarous country, the oracle was in close connection with Greece, and in the earliest times apparently much more so than afterwards (Hom. Il. XVI.233). Zeus himself, as well as the Dodonaeans, were reckoned among the Pelasgians, which is a proof of the ante-Hellenic existence of the worship of Zeus in these parts, and perhaps of the oracle also (Hesiod. and Ephor. ap. Strab. VII p327, &c.). The oracle was given from lofty oaks covered with foliage (Hom. Od. XIV.328, XIX.297), whence Aeschylus (Prom. 832; compare Soph. Trach. 1170) mentions the speaking oaks of Dodona as great wonders. Beech-trees, however, are also mentioned in connection with the Dodonaean oracle, which, as Hesiod (Fragm. 39; Soph. Trach. 169; Herod. II.55) said, dwelt in the stem of a beech-tree. Hence we may infer that the oracle was not thought to dwell in any particular or single tree, but in a grove of oaks and beeches. The will of the god was made manifest by the rustling of the wind through the leaves of the trees, which are therefore represented as eloquent tongues. In order to render the sounds produced by the winds more distinct, brazen vessels were suspended on the branches of the trees, which being moved by the wind came into contact with one another, and thus sounded till they were stopped (Suid. s.v. Δοδώνη; Philostrat. Imag. II). Another mode of producing the sounds was this:— There were two columns at Dodona, one of which bore a metal basin, and the other a boy with a scourge in his hand; the ends of the scourge consisted of little bones, and as they were moved by the wind they knocked against the metal basin on the other column (Steph. Byz. s.v. Δωδώνη;º S Suid. s.v. Δοδώναῖον χαλκεῖον; Strabo, Excerpt. ex lib. VII vol. II, p73, ed. Kramer). According to other accounts oracles were also obtained at Dodona through pigeons, which sitting upon oak-trees pronounced the will of Zeus (Dionys. Hal. I.15). The sounds were in early times interpreted by men, but afterwards, when the worship of Dione became connected with that of Zeus, by two or three old women who were called πελείαδες or πέλαιαι, because pigeons were said to have brought the command to found the oracle (Soph. Trach. 169, with the Schol.; Herod. l.c.; Paus. X.12 §5). In the time of Herodotus (l.c.) the names of the three prophetesses were Promeneia, Timarete and Nicandra. They were taken from certain Dodonaean families, who traced their pedigree back to the mythical ages. There were, however, at all times priests called τόμουροι (Strab. l.c.) connected with the oracle, who on certain occasions interpreted the sounds; but how the functions were divided between them and the Pelaeae is not clear. In the historical times the oracle of Dodona had less influence than it appears to have had at an earlier period, but it was at all times inaccessible to bribes and refused to lend its assistance to the Doric interest (Corn. Nep. Lysand. 3). It was chiefly consulted by the neighbouring tribes, the Aetolians, Acarnanians, and Epirots (Paus. VII.21 §1; Herod. IX.93), and by those who would not go to Delphi on account of its partiality for the Dorians. There appears to have been a very ancient connection between Dodona and the Boeotian Ismenion (Strab. IX p402; compare Müller, Orchom. p378, 2d edit.).

The usual form in which the oracles were given at Dodona was in hexameters; but some of the oracles yet remaining are in prose. In 219 B.C. the temple was destroyed by the Aetolians, and the sacred oaks were cut down (Polyb. IV.67), but the oracle continued to exist and to be consulted, and does not seem to have become totally extinct until the third century of our aera. In the time of Strabo the Dodonaean prophetesses are expressly mentioned, though the oracle was already decaying like all the others (Strab. VII p329).

Compare Cordes, De Oraculo Dodonaeo, Groningen, 1826; J. Arneth, Ueber das Taubenorakel von Dodona, Wien, 1840; L. von Lassaulx, Das Pelagische Orakel des Zeus zu Dodona, ein Beitrag zur Religionsphilosophie, Würzburg, 1840.

 p841  3. Oracle of Zeus Ammon, in an oasis in Libya, in the north-west of Egypt. According to the traditions current at Dodona and Thebes in Egypt, it was founded by the latter city (Herod. II.42, 54, &c.), and the form in which the god was represented at Thebes and in the Ammonium was the same; he had in both places the head of a ram (Herod. IV.181). The Greeks became acquainted with this oracle through the Cyreneans, and Sparta was the first city of Greece which formed connections with it (Paus. III.18 §2). Its example was followed by the Thebans, Olympians, Dodonaeans, Eleans, and others, and the Athenians sent frequent theories to the Ammonium even before Ol. 91 (Böckh, Publ. Econ. p240, 2d edit.), and called one of their sacred vessels Ammonis (Hesych. and Suid. s.v. Ἄμμων; Harpocrat. s.v. Ἀμμωνίς). Temples of Zeus Ammon were now erected in several parts of Greece. His oracle in Libya was conducted by men who also gave the answers (Diod. XVII.51). Their number appears to have been very great, for on some occasions when they carried the statue about in a procession, their number is said to have been eighty (Diod. XVII.50).º In the time of Strabo (XVII p813) the oracle was very much neglected, and in a state of decay. The Greek writers, who are accustomed to call the greatest god of a barbarous nation Zeus, mention several oracles of this divinity in foreign countries (Herod. II.29; Diod. III.6).

III. Oracles of other Gods

The other gods who possessed oracles were consulted only concerning those particular departments of the world and human life over which they presided. Demeter thus gave oracles at Patrae in Achaia, but only concerning sick persons, whether their sufferings would end in death or recovery. Before the sanctuary of the goddess there was a well surrounded by a wall. Into this well a mirror was let down by means of a rope, so as to swim upon the surface. Prayers were then performed and incense offered, whereupon the image of the sick person was seen in the mirror either as a corpse or in a state of recovery (Paus. VII.21 §5). At Pharae in Achaia, there was an oracle of Hermes. His altar stood in the middle of the market-place. Incense was offered there, oil-lamps were lighted before it, a copper coin was placed upon the altar, and after this the question was put to the god by a whisper in his ear. The person who consulted him shut his own ears, and immediately left the market-place. The first remark that he heard made by any one after leaving the market place was believed to imply the answer of Hermes (Paus. VII.22 §2).

There was an Oracle of Pluto and Cora at Charax, or Acharaca, not far from Nysa, in Caria. The two deities had here a temple and a grove, and near the latter there was a subterraneous cave of a miraculous nature, called the cave of Charon; for persons suffering from illness, and placing confidence in the power of the gods, travelled to this place, and stayed for some time with experienced priests who lived in a place near the cave. These priests then slept a night in the cavern, and afterwards prescribed to their patients the remedies revealed to them in their dreams. Often, however, they took their patients with them into the cave, where they had to stay for several days in quiet and without taking any food, and were sometimes allowed to fall into the prophetic sleep, but were prepared for it, and received the advice of the priests; for to all other persons the place was inaccessible and fatal. There was an annual panegyris in this place, probably of sick persons who sought relief from their sufferings. On the middle of the festive day the young men of the gymnasium, naked and anointed, used to drive a bull into the cave, which, as soon as it had entered, fell down dead (Strab. XIV p649; compare XIII p630).​a

At Epidaurus Limera oracles were given at the festival of Ino. [Inoa] The same goddess had an oracle at Oetylon, in which she made revelations in dreams to persons who slept a night in her sanctuary (Paus. III.26 §1). Hera Acraea had an oracle between Lechaeon and Pagae (Strab. VIII. p380).

IV. Oracles of Heroes

1. Oracle of Amphiaraus, between Potniae and Thebes, where the hero was said to have been swallowed up by the earth. His sanctuary was surrounded by a wall and adorned with columns, upon which birds never settled, and birds or cattle never took any food in the neighbourhood (Paus. IX.3 §2). The oracles were given to persons in their dreams, for they had to sleep in the temple (Herod. VIII.134) after they had prepared themselves for this incubatio by fasting one day, and by abstaining from wine for three days (Philostrat. Vit. Apoll. II.37). The Thebans were not allowed to consult this oracle, having chosen to take the hero as their ally rather than as their prophet (Herod. l.c.). Another oracle of Amphiaraus was at Oropus, between Boeotia and Attica, which was most frequently consulted by the sick about the means of their recovery. Those who consulted it had to undergo lustrations, and to sacrifice a ram, on the skin of which they slept a night in the temple, where in their dreams they expected the means of their recovery to be revealed to them (Paus. I.34 §2, &c.). If they recovered, they had to throw some pieces of money into the well of Amphiaraus in his sanctuary. The oracle was said to have been founded by the Thebans (Strab. IX p399).

2. Oracle of Amphilochus. He was the son of Amphiaraus, and had an oracle at Mallos in Cilicia, which Pausanias calls the most trustworthy of his time (Paus. I.34 §2; Dion Cass. LXXII.7).

3. Oracle of Trophonius at Lebadeia in Boeotia (Paus. IX.37 §3). Those who wished to consult this oracle had first to purify themselves by spending some days in the sanctuary of the good spirit and good luck (ἀγαθοῦ Δαίμονος καὶ ἀγαθῆς Τύχης), to live sober and pure, to abstain from warm baths, but to bathe in the river Hercyna, to offer sacrifices to Trophonius and his children, to Apollo, Cronos, king Zeus, Hera Heniocha, and to Demeter Europe, who was said to have nursed Trophonius; and during these sacrifices a soothsayer explained from the intestines of the victims whether Trophonius would be pleased to admit the consultor. In the night in which the consultor was to be allowed to descend into the cave of Trophonius, he had to sacrifice a ram to Agamedes, and only in case the signs of the sacrifice were favourable, the hero was thought to be pleased to admit the person into his cave. What took place  p842 after this was as follows:— Two boys, 13 years old, led him again to the river Hercyna, and bathed and anointed him. The priests then made him drink from the well of oblivion (Λήθη) that he might forget all his former thoughts, and from the well of recollection (Μνημοσύνη) that he might remember the visions which he was going to have. They then showed him a mysterious representation of Trophonius, made him worship it, and led him into the sanctuary, dressed in linen garments with girdles around his body, and wearing a peculiar kind of shoes (κρηπῖδες) which were customary at Lebadeia. Within the sanctuary which stood on an eminence, there was a cave, into which the person was now allowed to descend by means of a ladder. Close to the bottom, in the side of the cave, there was an opening into which he put his feet, whereupon the other parts of the body were likewise drawn into the opening by some invisible power. What the persons here saw was different at different times. They returned through the same opening by which they had entered, and the priests now placed them on the throne of Mnemosyne, asked them what they had seen, and led them back to the sanctuary of the good spirit and good luck. As soon as they had recovered from their fear, they were obliged to write down their vision on a little tablet which was dedicated in the temple. This is the account given by Pausanias, who had himself descended into the cave, and writes as an eye-witness (Paus. IX.39 §3, &c.; compare Philostr. Vit. Apoll. VIII.19). The answers were probably given by the priests according to the report of what persons had seen in the cave. This oracle was held in very great esteem, and did not become extinct until a very late period: and though the army of Sulla had plundered the temple, the oracle was much consulted by the Romans (Orig. c. Cels. VII p355), and in the time of Plutarch it was the only one among the numerous Boeotian oracles, that had not become silent (Plut. de Orac. Def. c5).

4. Oracle of Calchas, in Daunia in southern Italy. Here answers were given in dreams, for those who consulted the oracle had to sacrifice a black ram, and slept a night in the temple, lying on the skin of the victim (Strab. VI p284).

5. Oracles of Asclepius (Aesculapius). The oracles of Asclepius were very numerous. But the most important and most celebrated was that of Epidaurus. His temple there was literally covered with votive tablets, on which persons had recorded their recovery by spending a night in the temple. In the temples of Aesculapius and Serapis at Rome, recovery was likewise sought by incubatio in his temple (Suet. Claud. 25). F. A. Wolf has written an essay, Beitrag zur Gesch. des Somnambulismus aus dem Alterthum (Vermischte Schriften, p382, &c.), in which he endeavours to show that what is now called Mesmerism, or animal magnetism, was known to the priests of those temples where sick persons spent one or more nights for the purpose of recovering their health. Other oracles of the same kind are mentioned in that essay, together with some of the votive tablets still extant.

6. Oracle of Heracles at Bura in Achaia. Those who consulted it, prayed and put their questions to the god, and then cast four dice painted with figures, and the answer was given according to the position of these figures (Paus. VII.25 §6).

7. Oracle of Pasiphaë, at Thalamiae in Laconia, where answers were given in dreams while persons spent the night in the temple (Plut. Cleom. 7, Agis, 9; Cic. de Div. I.43).

8. Oracle of Phrixus, in Iberia near Mount Caucasus, where no rams were allowed to be sacrificed (Strab. XI p498; Tacit. Annal. VI.34).

V. Oracles of the Dead

Another class of oracles are the oracles of the dead (νεκυομαντεῖον or ψυχοπομπεῖον), in which those who consulted called up the spirits of the dead, and offered sacrifices to the gods of the lower world. One of the most ancient and most celebrated places of this kind was in the country of the Thesprotians near lake Aornos (Diod. IV.22; Herod. V.92 §7; Paus. IX.30 §3). Another oracle of this kind was at Heraclea on the Propontis (Plut. Cim. 6).

Respecting the Greek oracles in general see Wachsmuth, Hellen. Alterth. II p585, &c.; Klausen, in Ersch und Gruber's Encyclop. s.v. Orakel.

VI. Italian Oracles

Oracles, in which a god revealed his will through the mouth of an inspired individual, did not exist in Italy. The oracles of Calchas and Aesculapius mentioned above were of Greek origin, and the former was in a Greek heroum on mount Garganus. The Romans, in the ordinary course of things, did not feel the want of such oracles as those of Greece, for they had numerous other means to discover the will of the gods, such as the Sibylline books, augury, haruspices, signs in the heavens, and the like, which are partly described in separate articles and partly in Divinatio. The only Italian oracles known to us are the following:—

1. Oracle of Faunus. His oracles are said to have been given in the Saturnian verse, and collections of his vaticinia seem to have existed at an early period (Aurel. Vict. De Orig. gent. Rom. c4). The places where his oracles were given were two groves, the one in the neighbourhood of Tibur, round the well of Albunea, and the other on the Aventine (Virg. Aen. VII.81, &c.; Ovid, Fast. IV.650, &c.). Those who consulted the god in the grove of Albunea, which is said to have been resorted to by all the Italians, had to observe the following points:— The priest first offered a sheep and other sacrifices to the god. The skin of the victim was spread on the ground, and the consultor was obliged to sleep upon it during the night, after his head had been thrice sprinkled with pure water from the well, and touched with the branch of a sacred beech tree. He was, moreover, obliged several days before this night to abstain from animal food and from matrimonial connections, to be clothed in simple garments, and not to wear a ring on his fingers. After he fell asleep on the sheep-skin he was believed to receive his answer in wonderful visions and in converse with the god himself (Virg. l.c.; Isidor. VIII.11.87). Ovid (l.c.) transfers some of the points to be observed in order to obtain the oracle on the Albunea, to the oracle on the Aventine. Both may have had much in common, but from the story which he relates of Numa it seems to be clear that on the Aventine certain different ceremonies also were observed.

2. Oracles of Fortuna existed in several Italian towns, especially in Latium, as at Antium and Praeneste. In the former of these towns two  p843 sisters Fortunae were worshipped, and their statues used to bend forward when oracles were given (Macrob. Sat. I.23; compare Hor. Carm. I.35.1; Suet. Calig. 57 with Ernesti's note; Domit. 15). At Praeneste the oracles were derived from lots (sortes), consisting of sticks of oak with ancient characters graven upon them. These lots were said to have been found by a noble Praenestine of the name of Numerius Suffucius, inside of a rock which he had cleft open at the command of a dream by which he had been haunted. The lots, when an oracle was to be given, were shaken up together by a boy, after which one was drawn for the person who consulted the goddess (Cic. de Divin. II.41). The lots of Praeneste were, at least with the vulgar, in great esteem as late as the time of Cicero, while in other places of Latium they were mostly neglected. The Etruscan Caere in early times had likewise its sortes (Liv. XXI.62).

3. An Oracle of Mars was in very ancient times, according to Dionysius (I.15), at Tiora Matiena, not far from Reate. The manner in which oracles were here given resembled that of the pigeon-oracle at Dodona, for a woodpecker (picus), a bird sacred to Mars, was sent by the god, and settled upon a wooden column, whence he pronounced the oracle.

On Roman oracles in general see Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. I p508, &c.; Hartung, Die Relig. der Römer, vol. I p96, &c.

Thayer's Note:

a For the second citation of Strabo, the printed edition actually has "XII p579", an altogether unrelated passage. No bull is to be found in Book XII, and I've inserted the correct reference.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 30 May 20