Introductory Account
Ancient Oracles

No institution is more famous than the ancient Oracles of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They were said to be the will of the gods themselves, and they were consulted, not only upon every important matter, but even in the affairs of private life. To make peace or war, to introduce a change of government, to plant a colony, to enact laws, to raise an edifice, or to marry, were all sufficient reasons to consult the will of the gods. Mankind, in consulting them, showed that they wished to pay implicit obedience to the command of the divinity, and, when they had been favored with an answer, they acted with more spirit, and with more vigor, conscious that the undertaking had met with the sanction and approbation of heaven. In this, therefore, it will not appear wonderful that so many places were sacred to oracular purposes.

The small province of Boeotia could once boast of her 25 oracles, and Peloponnesus of the same number. Not only the chief of the gods gave oracles but, in process of time, heroes were admitted to enjoy the same privileges; and the oracles of a Trophonius and an Antinoiis, were soon able to rival the fame of Apollo and of Jupiter. The most celebrated oracles of antiquity were those of Dodona, Delphi, Jupiter Ammon, etc. The temple of Delphi seemed to claim a superiority over the other temples; its fame was once more extended, and its riches were so great, that not only private persons, but even kings and numerous armies, made it an object of plunder and of rapine.

The manner of delivering oracles was different. A priestess at Delphi was permitted to pronounce the oracles of the god, and her delivery of the answers was always attended with acts of apparent madness and desperate fury. Not only women, but even doves, were the ministers of the temple of Dodona; and the suppliant votary was often startled to hear his questions readily answered by the decayed trunk, or the spreading branches of a neighboring oak. Ammon conveyed his answers in a plain and open manner; but Amphiarius required many ablutions and preparatory ceremonies, and he generally communicated his oracles to his suppliants in dreams and visions. Sometimes the first words that were heard, after issuing from the temple, were deemed the answers of the oracles, and sometimes the nodding or shaking of the head of the statue, the motions of fishes in a neighboring lake, or their reluctance in accepting the food which was offered to them, were as strong and valid as the most express and most minute explanations.

It is a question among the learned, whether the oracles were given by the inspiration of evil spirits, or whether they proceeded from the imposture of the priests. Imposture, however, and forgery, cannot long flourish, and falsehood becomes its own destroyer; and on the contrary, it is well known how much confidence the people, even of an enlightened age, place upon dreams, prophecies, and unaccountable incidents. Some have strongly believed that all the oracles of the earth ceased at the birth of Christ, but the supposition is false. It was indeed, the beginning of their decline; but they remained in repute, and were consulted, though perhaps not so frequently, till the fourth century, when Christianity began to triumph over paganism. The oracles often suffered themselves to be bribed. Alexander did. it, but it is well known that Lysander failed in the attempt. Heredotus, who first mentioned the corruption which often prevailed in the oracular temples of Greece and Egypt, has been severely treated for his remarks, by the historian Plutarch. Demosthenes is also a witness of the corruption, and he observed, that the oracles of Greece were servilely subservient to the will and pleasure of Philip king of Macedon, as he beautifully expresses it by the word Philipidzein.

When in a state of inspiration, the eyes of the Priestess suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shivering ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and her articulations were taken down by the priest, and set in order. Sometimes the spirit of inspiration was more gentle, and not always violent; yet Plutarch mentions one of the priestesses who was thrown into such an excessive fury, that not only those that consulted the oracle, but also the priests that conducted her to the sacred tripod, and attended her during the inspiration, were terrified and forsook the temple; and so violent was the fit, that she continued for some days in the most agonizing situation, and at last died. At Delphos, the Pythia, before she placed herself on the tripod, used to wash her whole body, and particularly her hair, in the waters of the fountain Castalis, at the foot of mount Parnassus. She also shook a laurel tree that grew near the place, and sometimes ate the leaves, with which she crowned herself.

The Priestess always appeared dressed in the garments of virgins to intimate their purity and modesty, and they were solemnly bound to observe the strictest laws of temperance and chastity, that neither fantastical dresses nor lascivious behavior might bring the office, the religion, or the sanctity of the place into contempt. There was originally but one Pythia, besides subordinate priests, but afterwards two were chosen, and sometimes more. The most celebrated of all these is Phemonoe, who is supposed by some to have been the first who gave oracles at Delphi. The oracles were always delivered in hexameter verses, a custom which was some time after discontinued. The Pythia was consulted only one month in the year, about the spring. It was always required, that those who consulted the oracle should make large presents to Apollo, and from thence arose the opulence, splendor, and the magnificence of the celebrated temple of Delphi. Sacrifices were also offered to the divinity, and if the omens proved unfavorable, the priestess refused to give an answer. There were generally five priests who assisted at the offering of the sacrifices, and there was also another who attended the Pythia, and assisted her in receiving the oracle.

We shall now proceed to describe some of the most celebrated of the ancient Oracles:

Oracle of Delphos

Delphos, now called Castri, the capital of Phocis, in Greece, was anciently much celebrated for its Temple and Oracle of Apollo. It was also called Pytho, by the poets; from the serpent Python, which Apollo killed in this place. Pausanias however, says that this name Pytho was given to the city of Delphos, by Pythis, son of Delphus, and grandson of Lycorus. The Greek historians gave to this city the name of Delphos, which some suppose to have been so called from Adelphoi, brethren, because Apollo and his brother Bacchus were both worshipped there; and others, with greater probability, derive the name from Delphos, single, or solitary, referring to the retired situation of the city among the mountains.

Justin questions, which was the most worthy of admiration, the fortification of the place, or the majesty of the god, who here delivered his oracles. The Temple of Apollo occupied a large space, and many streets opened to it. The first discovery which laid the foundation of the extraordinary veneration in which the Oracle of Delphos was held, and of the riches accumulated in the temple, is said to have been occasioned by some goats which were feeding on mount Parnassus, near a deep and large cavern, with a narrow entrance. These goats having been observed by the goat-herd, Coretas, to frisk and leap after a strange manner, and to utter unusual sounds immediately upon their approach to the mouth of the cavern, he had the curiosity to view it, and found himself seized with the like fit of madness, skipping, dancing, and foretelling things to come.

At the news of this discovery, multitudes flocked thither, many of whom were possessed with such frantic enthusiasm, that they threw themselves headlong into the opening of the cavern; insomuch, that it was necessary to issue an edict, forbidding all persons to approach it. This surprising place was treated with singular veneration, and was soon covered with a kind of chapel, which was originally made of laurel boughs, and resembled a large hut. This, according to the Phocian tradition, was surrounded by one of wax, raised up by bees. After this a third was built of solid copper, said to have been the workmanship of Vulcan.

This last was destroyed, by an earthquake, or, according to some authors, by fire, which melted the copper; and then a sumptuous Temple, altogether of stone, was erected by two excellent architects, Trophimus and Agamedes. This edifice was destroyed by fire in the 58th Olympiad, or 548 years B.C. The Amphictyons proposed to be at the charge of building another; but the Alcmeonides, a rich family of Athens, came to Delphos, obtained the honor of executing the building, had made it more magnificent than they had at first proposed. The riches of this Temple, amassed by the donations of those who frequented it and consulted the Oracle, exposed it to various depredations. At length the Gauls, under the conduct of Brennus, came hither for the same purpose, about 278 years B. C.; but they were repulsed with great slaughter. Last of all, Nero robbed it of 500 of its most precious brazen and golden statues.

It has not been ascertained at what time this Oracle was founded. It is certain, however, that Apollo was not the first who was consulted here. Aeschylus, in his tragedy of the Eumenides, says, Terra was the first who issued oracles at Delphi: after her Themis, then Phoebe, another daughter of Terra, and, as it is said, mother of Latona, and grandmother to Apollo. Pausanias says, that before Themis, Terra and Neptune had delivered oracles in this place, and some say that Saturn had also been consulted here. At length the Oracle of Apollo became established and permanent; and such was its reputation, and such were the multitudes from all parts that came to consult it, that the riches which were thus brought into the temple and city, became so considerable as to be compared with those of the Persian kings.

About the time when this Oracle was first discovered, the whole mystery requisite for obtaining the prophetic gift, is said to have been merely to approach the cavern and inhale the vapor that issued from it; and then the god inspired all persons indiscriminately; but at length several enthusiasts, in the excess of their fury, having thrown themselves headlong into the cavern, it was thought expedient to contrive a prevention of this accident, which frequently occurred. Accordingly, the Priests placed over the hole, whence the vapor issued, a machine which they called "a tripod," because it had three feet, and commissioned a woman to seat herself in it, where she might inhale the vapor without danger, because the three feet of the machine stood firmly upon the rock. This Priestess was named Pythia, from the serpent Python, slain by Apollo, or from the Greek puthesthai, signifying to inquire, because people came to Delphi to consult this deity. The females, first employed, were virgins selected with great precaution, but the only qualification necessary was to be able to speak and repeat, what the god dictated.

This was done by placing her ear close to one of the horns of the altar, and listening to the voice of one of Apollo's priests, to whom the question had been communicated. This Priest, who stood near the altar, in the interior of the Temple, having been assisted by his brethren in the necessary devotions and sacrifices, opened the BOOK OF FATE which was deposited in the Temple, and after many prayers, worked the required problems. The Answer, which from the nature of the case in hand, was often conditional, being communicated to the Priestess on the tripod, was, after various ceremonies, delivered to the inquiring multitude, or to the individual who came privately to consult the Oracle.

The custom of choosing young virgins continued for a long time, till one of them, who was extremely beautiful, was dishonored by a young Thessalian. An express law was then enacted, that none should be chosen but women above fifty years old. At first there was only one Priestess; but afterwards, there were two or three. The oracles were not delivered every day; but gifts and sacrifices were in some cases presented for a long time, and even for a whole year; and it was only once a year in the month bosion, which answered to the beginning of spring, that Apollo inspired the Priestess. Except on this day, she was forbidden, under pain of death, to go into the sanctuary to consult Apollo.

Alexander, before his expedition into Asia, came to Delphi on one of those days when the sanctuary was shut, and entreated the Priestess to mount the tripod, which she steadily refused, alleging the law which forbade her. The prince, naturally impetuous, became impatient, and drew the Priestess by force from her cell, and whilst he was conducting her to the sanctuary, she took occasion to exclaim, "My son, thou art invincible!" As soon as these words were pronounced, Alexander cried out that he was satisfied, and would have no other oracle.

It is here to be observed, however, that great but unnecessary preparations were often made for giving mysteriousness to the oracle, and for commanding the respect that was paid to it. Among other circumstances relating to the sacrifices that were offered, the Priestess herself fasted three days, and before she ascended the tripod, she bathed herself in the fountain of Castalia. She drank water from that fountain, and chewed laurel-leaves gathered near it. She was then led into the sanctuary by the priests, who placed her upon the tripod.

As soon as she began to be agitated by the divine exhalation, said to arise from the cavern, but which was merely the vapor of incense burnt there, in order to give more mystery to the affair, her hair stood on end, her aspect became wild and ghastly, her mouth began to foam, and her whole body was suddenly seized with violent tremblings. In this condition she attempted to escape from the Priests, who detained her by force, while her shrieks and howlings made the whole temple resound, and filled the bystanders with a sacred horror.

At length, unable to resist the impulse of the god, she surrendered herself up to him, and at certain intervals uttered from the bottom of her stomach, or belly, by the faculty or power of ventriloquism, some unconnected words, which the Priests ranged in order, and put in form of verse, giving them a connection which they had not when they were delivered by the Priestess. The oracle being pronounced, the Priestess was taken off the tripod, and conducted back to her cell, where she continued several days to recover herself. Lucan tells us, that speedy death was frequently the consequence of her enthusiasm. The oracles pronounced by the Priestess being generally delivered to the poets, who attended on the occasion, and being put by them into wretched verse, gave occasion to the raillery, that, Apollo the Prince of the muses, was the worst of poets.

The Priests and Priestesses, to whose conduct the responses of the Oracle were committed, were, however, frequently guilty of fraud and imposture. And many instances might be mentioned, in which the Delphic Priestess was not superior to corruption. Hence she persuaded the Lacedemonians to assist the people of Athens in the expulsion of the 80 tyrants. Hence, also, she caused Demaratus to be divested of the royal dignity to make way for Cleomenes; and supported the impostor Lysander, when he endeavored to change the succession to the throne of Sparta. It is not improbable, that Themistocles, who well knew the importance of acting against the Persians by sea, inspired the god with the answer he gave, "to defend themselves with walls of wood."

These answers were likewise, on many occasions equivocal. Thus, when Croesus was about to invade the Medes, he consulted. this Oracle upon the success of the war, and received for answer, that by passing the river Halys, he should win a great empire. But he was left to conjecture, or to determine by the event, whether this empire was his own or that of his enemies. Such was also the same Oracle's answer to Pyrrhus.

"Aio te, Aeacida, Romanos vincere posse."

which meant, "I say unto thee 0 Greek, thou canst overcome the Romans." or, "I say unto thee, the Romans may overcome the Greeks."

Oracle of Delos

The Oracle of Apollo, in Delos, was one of the most famous Oracles in the world, not only for its antiquity, but for the richness of the sacred presents dedicated to the god, and the numbers of persons that resorted hither from all parts for advice; in which respect it surpassed not only all the Oracles of other gods, but even those of Apollo, himself,– that of Delphos alone excepted. Some writers say, that the island had the name of Delos, from the clear and simple terms in which the answers were here given by the Oracle, contrary to the ambiguity observed in other places; but it was consulted only while Apollo made Delos his summer residence, for his winter abode was at Patara, a city of Lycia. The presents offered by the votaries to Apollo, were laid on the altar, which, as some say, was erected by Apollo himself, when he was only four years old, and formed of the horns of goats, killed by Diana, on mount Cynthus. It was preserved pure from blood and every kind of pollution, as offensive to Apollo. The whole island was an asylum, which extended to all living creatures, dogs excepted, which were not suffered to be brought on shore.

The native deities, Apollo and Diana, had three very magnificent temples erected for them in this island. That of Apollo, was, according to Strabo, (lib. x.) begun by Erysiapthus, the son of Cecrops, who is said to have possessed this island 1558 years B.C.; but it was afterwards much enlarged and embellished at the general charge of all the Grecian states. But Plutarch says, that it was one of the most stately buildings in the universe, and describes its altar, as deserving a place among the seven wonders of the world. The inscription in this temple, as Aristotle informs us, (Ethic. l.i.c.9.) was as follows: "Of all things the most beautiful is justice; the most useful is health; and the most agreeable is the possession of the beloved object."

Round the temple were magnificent porticoes built at the charge of various princes, as appears from the still legible inscriptions. To this temple the neighboring islands sent yearly a company of virgins to celebrate with dancing the festival of Apollo, and his sister Diana, and to make offerings in the game of their respective cities.

Delos was held in such reverence by most nations, that even the Persians, after having laid waste the other islands, and every where destroyed the temples of the gods, spared Delos; and Datis the Persian admiral, forebore to anchor in the harbor.

Oracle of Ammon

The Temple of Jupiter Ammon was in the deserts of Libya, nine days journey from Alexandria. It had a famous Oracle, which, according to ancient tradition, was established about 18 centuries before the time of Augustus, by two doves which flew away from Thebais in Egypt, and came, one to Dodona, and the other to Libya, where the people were soon informed of their divine mission. The Oracle of Ammon was consulted by Hercules, Perseus, and others; but when it pronounced Alexander to be the son of Jupiter, such flattery destroyed its long established reputation, and in the age of Plutarch it was scarcely known. The situation of the temple was pleasant; and there was near it a fountain whose waters were cold at noon and mid-night, and warm in the morning and evening. There were above 100 priests in the temple, but the elders only delivered oracles. There was also an Oracle of Jupiter Ammon in Ethiopia.

Oracle of Dodona

Dodona was a town of Thresprotia in Epirus. There was in its neighborhood, upon a small hill called Tmarus, a celebrated Oracle of Jupiter. The town and temple of the god were first built by Deucalion, after the universal deluge. It was supposed to be the most ancient Oracle of all Greece, and according to the traditions of the Egyptians mentioned by Herodotus, it was founded by a dove. Two black doves, as he relates, took their flight from the city of Thebes, in Egypt, one of which flew to the temple of Jupiter Ammon, and the other to Dodona, where with a human voice they acquainted the inhabitants of the country that Jupiter had consecrated the ground, which in future would give oracles. The extensive grove which surrounded Jupiter's temple was endowed with the gift of prophecy, and oracles were frequently delivered by the sacred oaks, and the doves which inhabited the place. This fabulous tradition of the oracular power of the doves, is explained by Herodotus, who observes that some Phoenicians carried away two priestesses from Egypt, one of which went to fix her residence at Dodona, where the Oracle was established. It may further be observed. that the fable might have been founded upon the double meaning of the word peleiai, which signifies doves in most parts of Greece, while in the dialect of the Epirots, it implies old women. In ancient times the oracles were delivered by the murmuring of a neighboring fountain, but the custom was afterwards changed. Large kettles were suspended in the air near a brazen statue, which held a lash in its hand. When the wind blew strong, the statue was agitated and struck against one of the kettles, which communicated the motion to all the rest, and raised that clattering and discordant din which continued for a while, and from which the priests drew their predictions. Some suppose that the noise was occasioned by the shaking of the leaves and boughs of an old oak, which the people frequently consulted, and from which they pretended to receive the oracles. It may be observed with more probability that the oracles were delivered by the priests, who, by concealing themselves behind the oaks, gave occasion to the multitude to believe that the trees were endowed with the power of prophecy. As the ship Argo was built with some of the oaks of the forest of Dodona, there were some beams in the vessel which gave oracles to the Argonauts, and warned them against the approach of calamity. Within the forest of Dodona there was a stream with a fountain of cool water, which had the power of lighting a torch as soon as it touched it. This fountain was totally dry at noon day, and was restored to its full course at midnight, from which time till the following noon it began to decrease, and at the usual hour was again deprived of its waters. The oracles of Dodona were originally delivered by men, but afterwards by women.

The Roman Augurs

The Augurs were certain Priests at Rome who foretold future events, whence their name, ab avium garritu. They were first created by Romulus to the number of three. Servius Tullius added a fourth, and the tribunes of the people A.U.C. 454, increased the number to nine; and Sylla added six more, during his dictatorship. They had a particular college, and the chief amongst them was called Magister Collegii. Their office was honorable; and if any one of them was convicted of any crime, he could not be deprived of his privilege, an indulgence granted to no other sacerdotal body at Rome. The augur generally sat on a high tower, to make his observations. His face was turned towards the east, and he had the north to his left, and the south at his right. With a crooked staff he divided the face of the heavens into four different parts, and afterwards sacrificed to the gods, covering his head with his vestment. There were generally five things from which the augurs drew omens: the first consisted in observing the phenomena of the heavens, such as thunder, lightning, comets, etc. The second kind of omen was drawn from the chirping or flying of birds. The third was from the sacred chickens, whose eagerness or indifference in eating the bread which was thrown to them, was looked upon as lucky or unlucky. The fourth was from quadrupeds, from their crossing or appearing in some unaccustomed place. The fifth was from different casualties, which were called Dira, such as spilling salt upon a table, or wine upon one's clothes, hearing strange noises, stumbling or sneezing, meeting a wolf, hare, fox, or pregnant bitch. Thus did the Romans draw their prophecies; the sight of birds on the left hand was always deemed a lucky object, and the words sinister and levus, though generally supposed to be terms of ill luck, were always used by the augurs in an auspicious sense.

The Sibylline Books

A strange old woman came once to Tarquinius Superbus, king of Rome, with nine books, copies of the following work, which she said were the Oracles of the Sibyls, and proffered to sell them. But the king making some scruple about the price, she went away and burnt three of them; and returning with the six asked the same sum as before. Tarquin only laughed at the humor; upon which the old woman left him once more; and after she had burnt three others, came again with those that were left, but still kept to her old terms. The king began now to wonder at her obstinacy, and thinking there might be something more than ordinary in the business, sent for the Augurs to consult what was to be done. They, when their divinations were performed, soon acquainted him what a piece of impiety he had been guilty of, by refusing a treasure sent to him from heaven, and commanded him to give whatever she demanded for the books that remained. The woman received her money, and delivered the writings, and only charging them by all means to keep them sacred, immediately vanished. Two of the nobility were presently after chosen to be the keepers of these oracles, which were laid up with all imaginable care in the capitol, in a chest under ground. They could not be consulted without a special order of the senate, which was never granted, unless upon the receiving some notable defeat, upon the rising of any considerable mutiny or sedition in the state, or upon some other extraordinary occasion.

The number of priests, in this, as in most other orders, was several times altered. The Duumviri continued till about the year of the city 388, when the tribunes of the people preferred a law, that there should be ten men elected for this service, part out of the nobility, and part out of the commons. We meet with the Decemviri all along from hence, till about the time of Sylla the dictator, when the Quindecemviri occur. It were needless to give any farther account of the Sibyls, than that they are generally agreed to have been ten in number; for which we have the authority of Varro; though some make them nine, some four, some three, and some only one. They all lived in different ages and countries, were all prophetesses; and, according to common opinion, foretold the coming of our Savior. As to the writing, Dempster tell us, it was on linen.

Solinus acquaints us, that the books which Tarquin bought, were burnt in the conflagration of the capitol, the year before Sylla's dictatorship. Yet there were others of their inspired writing, or at least copies or extracts of them, gathered up in Greece and other parts, upon a special search made by order of the senate; which were kept with the same care as the former, till about the time of Theodosius the Great, when, the greatest part of the senate having embraced the Christian faith, they began to grow out of fashion; till at last Stilicho burnt them all, under Honorius, for which he is severely censured by the poet Rutilius.