Oracula (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:
- oral oracles;
- oracles by signs;
- oracles by dreams;
- oracles of the dead.
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 vapors 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. 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, mentioned as early as Homer,1 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 practiced 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 Amphiaraus at Oropus, of Trophonius at Lebadea, in Boeotia, and of the seers Mopsus and Amphilochus at Mallus, in Cilicia. 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,2Odysseus 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, practiced in isolated regions of Italy, and even in the immediate neighborhood of Rome, as at Caere, and especially at Praeneste, 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 Virgil. 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:
- 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.
- Of Apollo: at Delphi; 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).
- Of Gaea (the Earth): at Aegira, in Achaia, and at Patrae; of Pluto and Persephone 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.
- There were also oracles of heroes — e.g. of Asclepius, at Epidaurus and Pergamus; of Trophonius, at Lebadea; of Tiresias, at Orchomenus; of Amphiaraus, near Thebes and near Oropus; of Mopsus, at Mallos, in Cilicia; of Calchas and Podalirius, on Mount Dion, in Southern Italy; of Protesilaus, at Elaeus, in the Thracian Chersonesus; of Autolycus, the Argonaut, at Sinope; and of Odysseus, in Aetolia.
- There were Italian oracles of Faunus at Albunea and of Fortuna at Praeneste and Antium.3 At Caere and at Falerii there were "lots" (sortes), from which oracles or perhaps omens were inferred.4
Late Middle English via French from Latin oraculum, from orare, "speak."
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- Bouché-Leclercq. Histoire de la Divination dans l'Antiquité (Paris, 1879- 1882).
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- Stengel. Griechische Sacralalterthümer. 44-50 (1890).
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- Von Lassaulx. Das Pelasgische Orakel des Zeus zu Dodona (Würzburg, 1840).
This article incorporates text from Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898) by Harry Thurston Peck, which is in the public domain.