The Ancient Oracle

Oracles typified the mediumistic method of divination through a medium or diviner and figured prominently in the beliefs of all ancient peoples, often forming an integral part of religious rites. The meaning of the term oracle, derived from the Latin term orare, to ‘speak’ or to ‘pray’, is varied. Not only might an oracle be defined as the answer of a god or an inspired priest to an inquiry concerning the future, the term might also allude to the deity or personage giving the response. Alternatively, the word can refer to the place where the deity is consulted. In his work De Superstitio, the Greek philosopher Plutarch, explains that seeking out the oracle is an act of religion while the interpretation of omens is an act of superstition.96 Oracles not only delivered cryptic verbal messages in a trance, but also practised oneiromancy, divination by means of dreams, and necromancy, the art of securing revelations from the spirits of the dead. 

Oracular divination had its origin thousands of years ago. In the world of antiquity, no important decisions were ever made by emperors or kings without first seeking the advice of an oracle.97 Oracles were usually feminine, and in Greece this type of divination was represented by a priestess called a Pythia who uttered cryptic and often epigrammatic revelations under the influence of certain drugs or vapours. The sanctuary dedicated to the power of oracular divination was given the name ‘oracle’, meaning ‘place of invocation’ or ‘place of the sacred word’. Such a place was the ancient town of Delphi, situated high in the mountains, dominated by the Temple of Apollo, surrounded by a vast enclosure, housing great treasures. Near the temple was the entrance to the crypt in which the god pronounced his oracles through the famous Pythia. 

The Greek historian Diodorus (circa 90–21 BCE) recounts the legend concerning the origin of the Oracle of Delphi: A goat herder named Coretas was grazing his herd, when some goats grazing among the rocks approached a cavity from which rose intoxicating vapours. Inhaling these vapours, the goats were inexplicably struck down by convulsive seizures. When Coretas went to investigate, he discovered a cleft in the ground, and bending over it, also breathed in the fumes emanating from the cavity. Suddenly, he began to speak in a peculiar way. As other herders approached and listened to him, they realised in utter astonishment that Coretas was prophesying their future. The priests, hastily consulted on this mysterious phenomenon, decided these signs indicated the presence of a god desiring to communicate his wisdom through the medium of human speech from the location of the cavity in the rocks. The sanctuary of Delphi, comprising dozens of buildings including the Temple of Apollo, which is comparable to the Parthenon in size, was consequently built around this legendary spot. So, once a month, a virgin bearing the sacred name of Pythia – a name commemorating Apollo’s victory over the serpent Python – sitting on a tripod, gave voice to prophetic hallucinations produced by heady vapours and stupefying fumes, which emanated from burning laurel, pinewood, henbane, laudanum, and other intoxicating materials. 

On the seventh day of every month, the town of Delphi was overrun by milling crowds coming to consult the famous oracle, bringing lavish votive offerings, most of which they had purchased in the local stalls and shops. In this way, the town profited and prospered economically. It was thus in the interest of the priests of all oracle sites throughout the ancient world to maintain popular interest in their specific locations. This was achieved when an oracle site attracted renowned persons who received advice and prophesies that were allegedly fulfilled. Such news would spread the fame of the oracle like wildfire. Clearly, the priests always cleverly exploited the situation. In his book, The Mystery of the Oracles, Phillip Vandenberg describes ancient Delphi at the time of oracular divination: ‘What took place here on the seventh day of every month was a perfectly rehearsed mechanism, compounded of para-psychological, power-political, and material interests. In this prophetic machinery the Pythia was nothing but a supine tool; but she knew this and it filled her with pride to be the medium through which the god spoke’.98 

Procedures at the oracular sites varied greatly. The Roman historian, Tacitus (circa 56–117 CE), in his Annals,99 describes everyday events at the Oracle of Claros in modern-day Turkey, which in antiquity was ranked in importance alongside the Oracle of Delphi. According to Tacitus, a male priest presided at the Oracle of Claros, and when asked specific questions, he would descend into a cave at the sacred site, drink water from a sacred spring, and though generally illiterate and ignorant of meter, he spontaneously produced a set of verses on whatever subject the visitor questioned him. Unfortunately, the wonder of this art disappeared two thousand years ago. 

With regard to the Pythia, or pythoness, it is interesting to note that the modern female African diviner is also known as ‘pythoness’. In her book, Africa through the Mists of Time, Brenda Sullivan writes: ‘As far as I have been able to learn, African diviners today use techniques which may have been ancient when the Greek pythonesses plied the same trade at the shrine of the Delphic Oracle’.100 

Typically, responses made by the oracles were so ambiguous and obscure, as to be utterly misleading and misunderstood. For example, when the Lydian King Croesus consulted the Oracle of Delphi about a planned invasion, he received the answer ‘When Croesus crosses over the river Halys, he will overthrow the strength of an empire’. King Croesus naturally assumed the message alluded to his armies overthrowing the enemy’s empire, only to learn too late that it was in fact his own empire destroyed when the Persian King Cyrus defeated him.


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App