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μαντεῖα, “oracular responses,” or the “seats of oracles”; χρηστήρια is used in the same senses, and also of victims offered by persons consulting an oracle). The seats of the worship of some special divinity, where prophecies were imparted with the sanction of the divinity, either by the priests themselves or with their co-operation. There were many such places in all Greek countries, and these may be divided, according to the method in which the prophecy was made known, into four main divisions:
  • 1. oral oracles
  • 2. oracles by signs
  • 3. oracles by dreams
  • 4. oracles of the dead.

Types of oracles

1. Oral oracles

The most revered oracles were those of the first class, where the divinity, almost invariably the god Apollo, orally revealed his will through the lips of inspired prophets or prophetesses. The condition of frenzy was produced, for the most part, by physical influences: the breathing of earthy vapours or drinking of the water of oracular fountains. The words spoken while in this state were generally fashioned by the priests into a reply to the questions proposed to them. The most famous oracle of this kind was that of Delphi (see further below). Besides this there existed in Greece Proper a large number of oracles of Apollo, as at Abae in Phocis, in different places of Boeotia, in Euboea, and at Argos, where the priestess derived her inspiration from drinking the blood of a lamb, one being killed every month. Not less numerous were the oracles of Apollo in Asia Minor. Among these that of the Didymaean Apollo at Miletus traced its origin to the old family of the Branchidae, the descendants of Apollo's son Branchus. Before its destruction by Xerxes, it came nearest to the reputation of the Delphian. Here it was a priestess who prophesied, seated on a wheel-shaped disc, after she had bathed the hem of her robe and her feet in a spring, and had breathed the steam arising from it. The oracle at Clarus, near Colophon (see Manto), was also very ancient. Here a priest, after simply hearing the names and the number of those consulting the oracle, drank of the water of a spring, and then gave answer in verse.

2. Oracles by signs

The most venerated among the oracles where prophecy was given by signs was that of Zeus of Dodona (q.v.), mentioned as early as Homer ( Od. xiv. 327-xix. 296), where predictions were made from the rustling of the sacred oak, and at a later time from the sound of a brazen cymbal. Another mode of interpreting by signs, as practised especially at the temple of Zeus at Olympia by the Iamidae, or descendants of Iamus, a son of Apollo, was that derived from the entrails of victims and the burning of the sacrifices on the altar. There were also oracles connected with the lot or dice, one especially at the temple of Heracles at Bura, in Achaia; and prophecies were also delivered at Delphi by means of lots, probably only at times when the Pythia was not giving responses. The temple of the Egyptian Ammon, who was identified with Zeus, also gave oracles by means of signs.

3. Oracles by dreams.

Oracles given in dreams were generally connected with the temples of Asclepius. After certain preliminary rites, sick persons had to sleep in these temples; the priests interpreted their dreams, and dictated, accordingly, the means to be taken to insure recovery. The most famous of these oracular shrines of the healing god was the temple at Epidaurus, and next to this the temple founded thence at Pergamum, in Asia Minor. Equally famous were the similar oracles of the seer Amphiaraüs at Oropus, of Trophonius at Lebadea, in Boeotia, and of the seers Mopsus and Amphilochus at Mallus, in Cilicia (q.v.). In later times such oracles were connected with all sanctuaries of Isis and Serapis.

4. Oracles of the dead.

At oracles of the dead (ψυχομαντεῖα) the souls of deceased persons were evoked in order to give the information desired. Thus, in Homer ( Od. xi), Odysseus betakes himself to the entrance of the lower world to question the spirit of the seer Tiresias. Oracles of this kind were especially common in places where it was supposed there was an entrance to the lower world; as at the city of Cichyrus in Epirus (where there was an Acherusian lake as well as the rivers of Acheron and Cocytus, bearing the same names as those of the world below), at the promontory of Taenarum in Laconia, at Heraclea in Pontus, and at Lake Avernus, near Cumae, in Italy. At most of them oracles were also given in dreams; but there were some in which the inquirer was in a waking condition when he conjured up the spirits whom he wished to question.

Use of oracles

While oracles derived either from dreams or from the dead were chosen in preference by superstitious people, the most important among oral oracles and those given by means of signs had a political significance. On all serious occasions they were questioned on behalf of the State in order to ascertain the divine will: this was especially the case with the oracle of Delphi. In consequence of the avarice and partisanship of the priests, as well as the increasing decline of belief in the gods, the oracles gradually fell into abeyance, to revive again everywhere under the Roman emperors, though they never regained the political importance they had once had in ancient Greece.

Such investigation of the divine will was originally quite foreign to the Romans. Even the mode of prophesying by means of lots (see Sortes), practised in isolated regions of Italy, and even in the immediate neighbourhood of Rome, as at Caeré, and especially at Praenesté, did not come into use, at all events for State purposes, and was generally regarded with contempt. The Romans did not consult even the Sibylline verses in order to forecast the future. On the other hand, the growth of superstition in the imperial period not only brought the native oracles into repute, but caused a general resort to foreign oracles besides. The inclination to this kind of prophecy seems never to have been more generally spread among the masses of the people than at this time. Apart from the Greek oracular deities, there were the oriental deities, whose worship was nearly everywhere combined with predictions. In most of the famous sanctuaries the most various forms of prophecy were represented, and the stranger they were the better they were liked. In the case of the oral oracles, the responses in earlier times were, for the most part, composed in verse; on the decay of poetic productiveness, they began to take the form of prose, or of passages from the poets, the Greeks generally adopting lines of Homer or Euripides; the Italians, lines of Vergil. The public declaration of oracles ended with the official extermination of paganism under Theodosius at the end of the fourth century.

Particularly important oracles

The following is a list of the most celebrated oracles:
  • 1. Of Zeus: at Dodona, in Epirus, the most ancient of all; at Olympia, with the Iamidae and Clytiades as its priests; and of Zeus Ammon in a Libyan oasis in the northwest of Egypt.
  • 2. Of Apollo: at Delphi (see below); at Abae, in Phocis; at Tegyraia, in Boeotia; at Mount Ptoön, near Acraephia; of Apollo Ismenius, near Thebes, the national oracle of the Thebans; of Hysiae, at the base of Mount Cithaeron; at Eutresis, near Leuctra; of Apollo Didymaeus, in the territory of Miletus, with the Branchidae as its ministers; at Claros, north of Miletus; at Patara, in Lycia; at Cyaneae, in Lycia; of Apollo Sarpedonius at Seleucia, in Cilicia; at Hybla, in Magnesia; at Grynea or Grynium, in Asia Minor; at Methymna, in Lesbos; at Chalcedon; at Delos; at Argos; at Daphne, in Syria (in later times).
  • 3. Of Gaea (the Earth): at Aegira, in Achaia, and at Patrae; of Pluto and Persephoné at Acharaca, in Asia Minor, near Tralles; of Bacchus, at Amphiclea, in Phocis, and at Satrae, in Thrace; of Hermes, at Pharae, in Achaia; and of the Nymphs on Mount Cithaeron.
  • 4. There were also oracles of heroes—e. g. of Asclepius, at Epidaurus and Pergamus; of Trophonius, at Lebadea; of Tiresias, at Orchomenus; of Amphiaraüs, near Thebes and near Oropus; of Mopsus, at Mallos, in Cilicia; of Calchas and Podalirius, on Mount Dion, in Southern Italy; of Protesilaüs, at Elaeus, in the Thracian Chersonesus; of Autolycus, the Argonaut, at Sinopé; and of Odysseus, in Aetolia.
  • 5. There were Italian oracles of Faunus at Albunea and of Fortuna at Praenesté and Antium (De Div. ii. 41, 85). At Caeré and at Falerii there were “lots” (sortes), from which oracles or perhaps omens were inferred (Livy, xxii. 1).

Oracle at Delphi.

As the Delphic oracle is by far the most famous and the one to which allusion is oftenest made in literature, a somewhat more detailed account of it may be of interest. Its seat was on the southwestern spur of Parnassus in a valley of Phocis. In historical times the oracle appears in possession of Apollo; but the original possessor, according to the story, was Gaea (Eumen. 1, 2). Then it was shared by her with Poseidon (Eurip. Ion, 446), who gave up his part in it to Apollo in exchange for the island of Calauria, Themis, the daughter and successor of Gaea, having already given Apollo her share. According to the Homeric hymn to the Pythian Apollo, the god took forcible possession of the oracle soon after his birth, slaying with his earliest bow-shot the serpent Pytho, the son of Gaea, who guarded the spot. To atone for his murder, Apollo was forced to fly and spend eight years in menial service before he could return forgiven. A festival, the Septeria, was held every year, at which the whole story was represented: the slaying of the serpent, and the flight, atonement, and return of the god. Apollo was represented by a boy, both of whose parents were living. The dragon was symbolically slain, and his house, decked out in costly fashion, was burned. Then the boy's followers hastily dispersed, and the boy was taken in procession to Tempé, along the road formerly followed by the god. Here he was purified and brought back by the same road, accompanied by a chorus of maidens singing songs of joy. The oracle proper was a cleft in the ground in the innermost sanctuary, from which arose cold vapours, which had the power of inducing ecstasy. Over the cleft stood a lofty gilded tripod of wood. On this was a circular slab, upon which the seat of the prophetess was placed. The prophetess, called Pythia, was a maiden of honourable birth; in earlier times a young girl, but in a later age a woman of over fifty, still wearing a girl's dress, in memory of the earlier custom. In the prosperous times of the oracle two Pythias acted alternately, with a third to assist them. In the earliest times the Pythia ascended the tripod only once a year, on the birthday of Apollo, the seventh of the Delphian spring month Bysius. But in later years she prophesied every day, if the day itself and the sacrifices were not unfavourable. These sacrifices were offered by the supplicants, adorned with laurel crowns and fillets of wool. Having prepared herself by washing and purification, the Pythia entered the sanctuary, with gold ornaments in her hair and flowing robes upon her; she drank of the water of the fountain Cassotis, which flowed into the shrine, tasted the fruit of the old bay-tree standing in the chamber, and took her seat. No one was present but a priest, called the προφήτης (and προφῆτις), who explained the words she uttered in her ecstasy, and put them into metrical form, generally hexameters. In later times the votaries were contented with answers in prose. The responses were often obscure and enigmatical, and couched in ambiguous and metaphorical expressions, which themselves needed explanation. The order in which the applicants approached the oracle was determined by lot, but certain cities, as Sparta, had the right of priority.

The reputation of the oracle stood very high throughout Greece until the time of the Persian Wars, especially among the Dorian tribes, and among them pre-eminently the Spartans, who had stood from of old in intimate relation with it. On all important occasions, as the sending out of colonies, the framing of internal legislation or religious ordinances, the god of Delphi was consulted, and that not only by Greeks, but by foreigners, especially the people of Asia and Italy. After the Persian Wars the influence of the oracle declined, partly in consequence of the growth of unbelief, partly from the mistrust excited by the partiality and venality of the priesthood, who sometimes were bribed into giving oracles favourable to the inquirer, and in the case of Philip of Macedon, when Demosthenes said, πυθία φιλιππίζει. But it never fell completely into discredit, and from time to time its position rose again. In the first half of the second century A.D. it had a revival, the result of the newly awakened interest in the old region. It was abolished at the end of the fourth century A.D. by Theodosius the Great.

The oldest stone temple of Apollo was attributed to the mythical architects, Trophonius and Agamedes. It was burned down in B.C. 548, when the Alcmaeonidae, at that time in exile from Athens, undertook to rebuild it for the sum of 300 talents, partly taken from the treasure of the temple, and partly contributed by all countries inhabited by Greeks and standing in connection with the oracle. They put the restoration into the hands of the Corinthian architect Spintharus, who carried it out in a more splendid style than was originally agreed upon, building the front of Parian marble instead of limestone. The groups of sculpture in the pediments represented, on the eastern side, Apollo with Artemis, Leto, and the Muses; on the western side, Dionysus with the Thyiades and the setting sun; for Dionysus was worshipped here in winter during the imagined absence of Apollo. These were all the work of Praxias and Androsthenes, and were finished about B.C. 430. The temple was, on account of its vast extent, a hypaethral building—that is, there was no roof over the space occupied by the temple proper. The architecture of the exterior was Doric, of the interior Ionic, as may still be observed in the surviving ruins. On the walls of the entrance-hall were short texts written in gold, attributed to the Seven Sages. One of these was the celebrated “Know Thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Pausan. x. 24, 1). In the temple proper stood the golden statue of Apollo, and in front of it the sacrificial hearth with the eternal fire. Near this was a globe of marble covered with fillets, the Ὀμφαλός, or centre of the earth. In earlier times two eagles stood at its side, representing the two eagles which fable said had been sent out by Zeus at the same moment from the eastern and western ends of the world. These eagles were carried off in the Phocian War, and their place filled by two eagles in mosaic on the floor. Behind this space was the inner shrine, lying lower, in the form of a cavern over the cleft in the earth. Within the spacious precincts (περίβολος) stood a great number of chapels, statues, votive offerings, and treasure-houses of the various Greek states, in which they deposited their gifts to the sanctuary, especially the tithes of the booty taken in war. Here, too, was the council-chamber of the Delphians. Before the entrance to the temple was the great altar for burnt-offerings, and the golden tripod, dedicated by the Greeks after the battle of Plataea, on a pedestal of brass, representing a snake in three coils, and of which the greater part now stands in the Hippodrome at Constantinople. Besides the treasures accumulated in the course of time, the temple had considerable property in land, with a population consisting mainly of slaves (ἱερόδουλοι), bound to pay contributions and to render service to the sanctuary. The management of the property was in the hands of priests chosen from the noble Delphian families, at their head the five ὅσιοι or consecrated ones. Since the first spoliation of the temple by the Phocians in B.C. 355, it was several times plundered on a grand scale. Nero, for instance, is said to have carried off 500 bronze statues. Yet some 3000 statues were to be seen there in the time of the elder Pliny.


On the oracles in general, see Bouché-Leclercq, Hist. de la Divination dans l'Antiquité (Paris, 1879- 1882); Maury, Histoire des Religions de la Grèce Antique (Paris, 1857); E. Curtius, Die hellenische Mantik (Göttingen, 1864); Fontaine, De Divinitatis Origine et Progressu (Rostock, 1867); Stengel, Griechische Sacralalterthümer. 44-50 (1890); Hartung, Die Religion der Römer, vol. i. pp. 96 foll. (1836); and Hoffmann, Das Orakelwesen im Alterthume (1877). The oracles that have descended to us are collected by Henders, Oracula Graeca Quae Exstant (1877).

On particular oracles, see A. Mommsen, Delphika (Leipzig, 1878); Hüllmann, Würdigung des delphischen Orakels (Bonn, 1837); Kayser, Delphi (Darmstadt, 1855); Götte, Das delphische Orakel (Leipzig, 1839); Carapanos, Dodone et des Ruines (Paris, 1878); id. Mémoire sur Dodone (1877); Von Lassaulx, Das pelasgische Orakel des Zeus zu Dodona (Würzburg, 1840); Arneth, Ueber das Taubenorakel von Dodona (Vienna, 1840); Von Gerlach, Dodona (Basel, 1859); and Perthes, Die Peleiaden zu Dodona (Merseburg 1869). On the temple at Delphi, see a paper by Prof. Middleton in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. ix. pp. 282 foll.

hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Euripides, Ion, 446
    • Homer, Odyssey, 11.1
    • Homer, Odyssey, 14.327
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 1
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