Oracles
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 inviolate.
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 unceasing
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 inOracles
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quire 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 receive—and
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 occurrence
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 Miletus,
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 ‘‘remarkable
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 birth—every day belonged to a speEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Oracles
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cial 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 ApuCcapac-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.
Sources
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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