The famous oracle of ancient Greece, where the priestess
Pythia was consulted concerning the future and gave her answers
in a state of trance, induced by intoxicating fumes. According
to Justinian, ‘‘In a dark and narrow recess of a cliff at
Delphi there was a little open glade and in this a hole, or cleft
in the earth, out of which blew a strong draft or air straight up
and as if impelled by a wind, which filled the minds of poets
with madness.’’ Lake Avernus, Heraclea, and Phigaleia were
qualified for the evocation of the dead by similar intoxicating
According to Plutarch, the Delphian oracle had not been
convicted of falsehood in a single instance. On the contrary, the
verification of the oracles has filled the temple with gifts from
all parts of Greece and foreign countries. In discussing the
question ‘‘Why the Prophetess Pythia giveth no Answers now
from the Oracle in Verse,’’ Plutarch explained that the replies
were always couched in enigmatical language when kings and
states consulted the oracle on weighty matters that might have
done harm if made public, but that private persons always received
direct answers in the plainest terms.
Herodotus told of a successful test of the oracles by Croesus,
King of Lydia. He dispatched envoys to the best six oracles
Delphi, Dodona, Branchidae, Zeus Ammon, Trophonius, and
Amphiaraus. The envoys were instructed to ask on the hundredth
day of their departure what Croesus was doing at home
in Sardis at a particular moment. Four oracles entirely failed.
Delphi was perfectly right. Herodotus quoted the reply
I can count the sands, and I can measure the Ocean;
I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth;
Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of shell-covered tortoise,
Boiling now on fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron,
Brass in the vessel below, and brass to cover above it.
Croesus wished to think out an action that could not be
guessed at. He took a tortoise and a lamb, cut them to pieces,
and boiled them in a covered brazen cauldron.
The decline of the oracles began two or three centuries before
Christ. That of Delphi was closed in the fourth century by
a decree of Theodosius. After a long period of disuse, attempts
were made to revive the oracle at the opening of the second
century C.E. under Plutarch’s priesthood. During the period of
Christianity under Constantine the oracle became finally silent.