ORACLE (Lat. oraculum, from orare, to pray; the corresponding Greek word is μαντεῖον or χρηστήριον), a special place where a deity is supposed to give a response, by the mouth of an inspired priest, to the inquiries of his votaries; or the actual response. The whole question of oracles—whether in the sense of the response or the sacred place—is bound up with that of magic, divination and omens, to the articles on which the reader is referred. They are commonly found in the earlier stages of religious culture among different nations. But it is as an ancient Greek institution that they are most interesting historically.
A characteristic feature of Greek religion which distinguishes it from many other systems of advanced cult was the wide prevalence of a ritual of divination and the prominence of certain oracular centres which were supposed to give voice to the will of Providence. An account of the oracles of Greece is concerned with the historical question about their growth, influence and career. But it is convenient to consider first the anthropologic question, as to the methods of divination practised in ancient Greece, their significance and the original ideas that inspired them. Only the slightest theoretical construction is possible here; and the true psychologic explanation of the mantic facts is of very recent discovery. In the Greek world these were of great variety, but nearly all the methods of divination found there can be traced among other communities, primitive and advanced, ancient and modern. The most obvious and useful classification of them is that of which Plato was the author, who distinguishes between (a) the “sane” form of divination and (b) the ecstatic, enthusiastic or “insane” form. The first method appears to be cool and scientific, the diviner (μάντις) interpreting certain signs according to fixed principles of interpretation. The second is worked by the prophet, shaman or Pythoness, who is possessed and overpowered by the deity, and in temporary frenzy utters mystic speech under divine suggestion. To these we may add a third form (c), divination by communion with the spiritual world in dreams or through intercourse with the departed spirit: this resembles class (a) in that it does not necessarily involve ecstasy, and class (b) in that it assumes immediate rapport with some spiritual power.
It will be convenient first to give typical examples of these various processes of discovering the divine will, and then to sketch the history of Delphi, the leading centre of divination. We may subdivide the methods that fall under class (a), those that conform to the “omen”-system, according as they deal with the phenomena of the animate or the inanimate world; although this distinction would not be relevant in the period of primitive animistic thought. The Homeric poems attest that auguries from the flight and actions of birds were commonly observed in the earliest Hellenic period as they occasionally were in the later, but we have little evidence that this method was ever organized as it was at Rome into a regular system of state-divination, still less of state-craft. We can only quote the passage in the Antigone where Sophocles describes the method of Teiresias, who keeps an aviary where he studies and interprets the flight and the cries of the birds; it is probable that the poet was aware of some such practice actually in vogue. But the usual examples of Greek augury do not suggest deliberate and systematic observation; for instance, the phenomenon in the Iliad of the eagle seizing the snake and dropping it, or, in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, of the eagles swooping on the pregnant hare. Other animals besides birds could furnish omens; we have an interesting story of the omen derived from the contest between a wolf and a bull which decided the question of the sovereignty of Argos when Danaus arrived and claimed the kingdom; and the private superstitious man might be encouraged or depressed by any ominous sign derived from any part of the animal world. But it is very rare to find such omens habitually consulted in any public system of divination sanctioned by the state. We hear of a shrine of Apollo at Sura in Lycia, where omens were taken from the movements of the sacred fish that were kept there in a tank; and again of a grove consecrated to this god in Epirus, where tame serpents were kept and fed by a priestess, who could predict a good or bad harvest according as they ate heartily or came willingly to her or not.
But the method of animal divination that was most in vogue was the inspection of the inward parts of the victim offered upon the altar, and the interpretation of certain marks found there according to a conventional code. Sophocles in the passage referred to above gives us a glimpse of the prophet's procedure. A conspicuous example of an oracle organized on this principle was that of Zeus at Olympia, where soothsayers of the family of the Iamidai prophesied partly by the inspection of entrails, partly by the observation of certain signs in the skin when it was cut or burned. Another less familiar procedure that belongs to this subdivision is that which was known as divination διὰ κληδόνων, which might sometimes have been the cries of birds, but in an oracle of Hermes at the Achaean city of Pharae were the casual utterances of men. Pausanias tells us how this was worked. The consultant came in the evening to the statue of Hermes in the market-place that stood by the side of a hearth altar to which bronze lamps were attached; having kindled the lamps and put a piece of money on the altar, he whispered into the ear of the statue what he wished to know; he then departed, closing his ears with his hands, and whatever human speech he first heard after withdrawing his hands he took for a sign. The same custom seems to have prevailed at Thebes in a shrine of Apollo, and in the Olympian oracle of Zeus.
Of omens taken from what we call the inanimate world salient examples are those derived from trees and water, a divination to be explained by an animistic feeling that may be regarded as at one time universal. Both were in vogue at Dodona, where the ecstatic method of prophecy was never used; we hear of divination there from the bubbling stream, and still more often of the " talking oak "; under its branches may once have slept the Selloi, who interpreted the sounds of the boughs, and who may be regarded as the depositories of the Aryan tradition of Zeus, the oak god who spoke in the tree. At Korope in Thessaly we hear vaguely of an Apolline divination by means of a branch of the tamarisk tree, a method akin no doubt to that of the divining rod which was used in Greece as elsewhere; and there is a late record that at Daphne near Antioch oracles were obtained by dipping a laurel leaf or branch in a sacred stream. Water divination must have been as familiar at one time to the Greeks as it was to the ancient Germans; for we hear of the fountain at Daphne revealing things to come by the varying murmur of its flow; and marvellous reflections of a mantic import might be seen in a spring on Taenaron in Laconia; from another at Patrae omens were drawn concerning the chances of recovery from disease. Thunder magic, which was practised in Arcadia, is usually associated with thunder divination; but of this, which was so much in vogue in Etruria and was adopted as a state-craft by Rome, the evidence in Greece is singularly slight. Once a year watchers took their stand on the wall at Athens and waited till they saw the lightning flash from Harma, which was accepted as an auspicious omen for the setting out of the sacred procession to Apollo Pythius at Delphi; and the altar of Zeus Σημαλέος, the sender of omens, on Mount Parnes, may have been a religious observatory of meteorological phenomena. No doubt such a rare and portentous event as the fall of a meteor-stone would be regarded as ominous, and the state would be inclined to consult Delphi or Dodona as to its divine import.
We may conclude the examples of this main department of μαντική by mentioning a method that seems to have been much in vogue in the earlier times, that which was called ἡ διὰ ψήφων μαντική, or divination by the drawing or throwing of lots; these must have been objects, such as small pieces of wood or dice, with certain marks inscribed upon them, drawn casually or thrown down and interpreted according to a certain code. This simple process of immemorial antiquity, for other Aryan peoples such as the Teutonic possessed it, was practised at Delphi and Dodona by the side of the more solemn procedure; we hear of it also in the oracle of Heracles at Bura in Achaea. It is this method of “scraping” or “notching” (χράιεν) signs on wood that explains probably the origin of the words χρησμός, χρῆσθαι, ἀναιρεῖν for oracular consultation and deliverance.
The processes described above are part of a world-wide system of popular divination. And most of them were taken up by the oracular shrines in Greece, Apollo himself having no special and characteristic mantic method, but generally adopting that which was of local currency. But much that is adopted by the higher personal religions descends from a more primitive and lower stage of religious feeling. And all this divination was originally independent of any personal divinity. The primitive diviner appealed directly to that mysterious potency which was supposed to inhere in the tree and spring, in the bird or beast, or even in a notched piece of wood. At a later stage, it may be, this power is interpreted in accordance with the animistic, and finally with the theistic, belief; and now it is the god who sends the sign, and the bird or animal is merely his organ. Hence the omen-seeker comes to prefer the sacrificed animal, as likely to be filled with the divine spirit through contact with the altar. And, again, if we are to understand the most primitive thought, we probably ought to conceive of it as regarding the omen not as a mere sign, but in some confused sense as a cause of that which is to happen. By sympathetic magic the flight of the bird, or the appearance of the entrails, is mysteriously connected, as cause with effect, with the event which is desired or dreaded. Thus in the Aztec sacrifice of children to procure rain, the victims were encouraged to shed tears copiously; and this was not a mere sign of an abundant rainfall, but was sympathetically connected with it. And in the same way, when of the three beasts over which three kings swore an oath of alliance, one died prematurely and was supposed thereby to portend the death of one of the kings, or when in the Lacedaemonian sacrifice the head of the victim mysteriously vanished, and this portended the death of their naval commander, these omens would be merely signs of the future for the comparatively advanced Hellene; but we may discern at the back of this belief one more primitive still, that these things were somehow casually or sympathetically connected with the kindred events that followed. We can observe the logical nexus here, which in most instances escapes us. This form of divination, then, we may regard as a special branch of sympathetic magic, which nature herself performs for early man, and which it concerns him to watch.
The other branch of the mantic art, the ecstatic or inspired, has had the greater career among the peoples of the higher religions; and morphologically we may call it the more advanced, as Shamanism or demoniac or divine possession implies the belief in spirits or divinities. But actually it is no doubt of great antiquity, and it is found still existing at a rather low grade of savagery. Therefore it is unsafe to infer from Homer's silence about it that it only became prevalent in Greece in the post-Homeric period. It did not altogether supersede the simpler method of divination by omens; but being far more impressive and awe-inspiring, it was adopted by some of the chief Apolline oracles, though never by Dodona.
The most salient example of it is afforded by Delphi. In the historic period, and perhaps from the earliest times, a woman known as the Pythoness was the organ of inspiration, and it was generally believed that she delivered her oracles under the direct afflatus of the god. The divine possession worked like an epileptic seizure, and was exhausting and might be dangerous; nor is there any reason to suppose that it was simulated. This communion with the divinity needed careful preparation. Originally, as it seems, virginity was a condition of the tenure of the office; for the virgin has been often supposed to be the purer vehicle for divine communication; but later the rule was established that a married woman over fifty years of age should be chosen, with the proviso that she should be attired as a maiden. As a preliminary to the divine possession, she appears to have chewed leaves of the sacred laurel, and then to have drunk water from the prophetic stream called Kassotis which flowed underground. But the culminating point of the afflatus was reached when she seated herself upon the tripod; and here, according to the belief of at least the later ages of paganism, she was supposed to be inspired by a mystic vapour that arose from a fissure in the ground. Against the ordinary explanation of this as a real mephitic gas producing convulsions, there seem to be geological and chemical objections; nor have the recent French excavations revealed any chasm or gap in the floor of the temple. But the strong testimony of the later writers, especially Plutarch, cannot wholly be set aside; and we can sufficiently reconcile it with the facts if we suppose a small crack in the floor through which a draught of air was felt to ascend. This, combining with the other manlic stimulants used, would be enough to throw a believing medium into a condition of mental seizure; and the difficulty felt by the older generation of scholars, who had to resort to the hypothesis of charlatanism or diabolic agency, no longer exists in the light of modern anthropology and the modern science of psychic phenomena. The Pythoness was no ambitious pretender, but ordinarily a virtuous woman of the lower class. It is probable that what she uttered were only unintelligible murmurs, and that these were interpreted into relevance and set in metric or prose sentences by the “prophet” and the “Holy Ones” or Ὅσιοι as they were called, members of leading Delphic families, who sat round the tripod, who received the questions of the consultant beforehand, probably in writing, and usually had considered the answers that should be given.
Examples of the same enthusiastic method can be found in other oracles of Apollo. At Argos, the prophetess of the Apollo Pythius attained to the divine afflatus by drinking the blood of the lamb that was sacrificed in the night to him; this is obviously a mantic communion, for the sacrificial victim is full of the spirit of the divinity. And we find the same process at the prophetic shrine of Ge at Aegae in Achaea, where the prophetess drank a draught of bull's blood for the same purpose. In the famous oracle shrines of Apollo across the sea, at Klaros and Branchidae near Miletus, the divination was of the same ecstatic type, but produced by a simple draught of holy water. The Clarian prophet fasted several days and nights in retirement and stimulated his ecstasy by drinking from a subterranean spring which is said by Pliny to have shortened the lives of those who used it. Then, “on certain fixed nights after many sacrifices had been offered, he delivered his oracles, shrouded from the eyes of the consultants.”
The divination by “incubation” was allied to this type, because though lacking the ecstatic character, the consultant received direct communion with the god or departed spirit. He attained it by laying himself down to sleep or to await a vision, usually by night, in some holy place, having prepared himself by a course of ritualistic purification. Such consultation was naturally confined to the underworld divinities or to the departed heroes. It appears to have prevailed at Delphi when Ge gave oracles there before the coming of Apollo, and among the heroes Amphiaraus, Calchas and Trophonius are recorded to have communicated with their worshippers in this fashion. And it was by incubation that the sick and diseased who repaired to the temple of Epidaurus received their prescriptions from Asclepius, originally a god of the lower world.
After this brief account of the prevalent forms of prophetic consultation, it remains to consider the part played by the Greek oracles in the history of Greek civilization. It will be sufficient to confine our attention to Delphi, about which our information is immeasurably fuller than it is about the other shrines. In the earliest period Dodona may have had the higher prestige, but after the Homeric age it was eclipsed by Delphi, being consulted chiefly by the western Greeks, and occasionally in the 4th century by Athens.
The gorge of Delphi was a seat of prophecy from the earliest days of Greek tradition. Ge, Themis and perhaps Poseidon had given oracles here before Apollo. But it is clear that he had won it in the days before Homer, who attests the prestige and wealth of his Pythian shrine; and it seems clear that before the Dorian conquest of the Peloponnese a Dryopian migration had already carried the cult of Apollo Pythius to Asine in Argolis. Also the constitution of the Amphictyones, “the dwellers around the temple” reflects the early age when the tribe rather than the city was the political unit, and the Dorians were a small tribe of north Greece. The original function of these Amphictyones was to preserve the sanctity and property of the temple; but this common interest early developed a certain rule of intertribal morality. By the formula of the Amphictyonic oath preserved by Aeschines, which may be of great antiquity, the members bound themselves “not to destroy any city of the league, not to cut any one of them off from spring-water, either in war or peace, and to war against any who violated these rules.” We discern here that Greek religion offered the ideal of a federal national union that Greek politics refused to realize.
The next stage in the history of the oracle is presented by the legend of the Dorian migration. For we have no right to reject the strong tradition of the Delphic encouragement of this movement, which well accounts for the devotion shown by Sparta to the Pythian god from the earliest days; and accounts also for the higher position that Delphi occupied at the time when Greek history is supposed to begin.
We have next to consider a valuable record that belongs to the end of the 8th century or beginning of the 7th, the Homeric hymn to Apollo, which describes the coming of the Dolphin-God—δελφίνιος—to Pytho, and the organization of the oracle by Cretan ministers. Of this Cretan settlement at Delphi there is no other literary evidence, and the Ὅσιοι who administered the oracle in the historic period claimed to be of aboriginal descent. Yet recent excavation has proved a connexion between Crete and Delphi in the Minoan period; and there is reason to believe that in the 8th century some ritual of purification, momentous for the religious career of the oracle, was brought from Crete to Delphi, and that the adoption of this latter name for the place which had formerly been called Πυθώ synchronized with the coming of Apollo Delphinius.
The influence of Delphi was great in various ways, though no scholar would now maintain the exaggerated dogma of Curtius, who imputed to the oracle a lofty religious enthusiasm and the consciousness of a religious political mission.
We may first consider its political influence upon the other states. The practice of a community consulting an oracle on important occasions undoubtedly puts a powerful weapon into the hands of the priesthood, and might lead to something like a theocracy. And there are one or two ominous hints in the Odyssey that the ruler of the oracle might overthrow the ruler of the land. Yet owing to the healthy temperament of the early Greek, the civic character of the priesthood, the strength of the autonomous feeling, Greece might flock to Delphi without exposing itself to the perils of sacerdotal control. The Delphic priesthood, content with their rich revenues, were probably never tempted to enter upon schemes of far-reaching political ambition, nor were they in any way fitted to be the leaders of a national policy. Once only, when the Spartan state applied to Delphi to sanction their attack on Arcadia, did the oracle speak as if, like the older papacy, it claimed to dispose of territory—“Thou askest of me Arcadia; I will not give it thee.” But here the oracle is on the side of righteousness, and it is the Spartan that is the aggressor. In the various oracles that have come down to us, many of which must have been genuine and preserved in the archives of the state that received them, we cannot discover any marked political policy consistently pursued by the “Holy Ones” of Delphi. As conservative aristocrats they would probably dislike tyranny; their action against the Peisistratidae was interested, but one oracle contains a spirited rebuke to Cleisthenes, while one or two others, perhaps not genuine, express the spirit of temperate constitutionalism. As exponents of an Amphictyonic system they would be sufficiently sensitive of the moral conscience of Greece to utter nothing in flagrant violation of the “jus gentium.” In one department of politics, the legislative sphere, it has been supposed that the influence of Delphi was direct and inspiring. Plato and later writers imagined that the Pythoness had dictated the Lycurgean system, and even modern scholars like Bergk have regarded the ῥήρται of Sparta as of Delphic origin. But a severer criticism dispels these suppositions. The Delphic priesthood had neither the capacity nor probably the desire to undertake so delicate a task as the drafting of a code. They might make now and again a general suggestion when consulted, and, availing themselves of their unique opportunities of collecting foreign intelligence, they might often recommend a skilful legislator or arbitrator to a state that consulted them at a time of intestine trouble. Finally, a legislator with a code would be well advised, especially at Sparta, in endeavouring to obtain the sanction and the blessing of the Delphic god, that he might appear before his own people as one possessed of a religious mandate. In this sense we can understand the stories about Lycurgus.
There is only one department of the secular history of Greece where Delphi played a predominant and most effective part, the colonial department. The great colonial expansion of Greece, which has left so deep an imprint on the culture of Europe, was in part inspired and directed by the oracle. For the proof of this we have not only the evidence of the χρησμοὶ preserved by Herodotus and others, such as those concerning the foundation of Cyrene, but also the worship of Apollo Ἀρχηγέτης, “the Founder,” prevalent in Sicily and Magna Graecia, and the early custom of the sending of tithes or thanksgiving offerings by the flourishing western states to the oracle that had encouraged their settlements.
Apollo was already a god of ways—Ἀγυιεύς—who led the migration of tribes before he came to Delphi. And those legends are of some value that explain the prehistoric origin of cities such as Magnesia on the Maeander, the Dryopian Asine in the Peloponnese, as due to the colonization of temple-slaves, acquired by the Pythian god as the tithe of conquests, and planted out by him in distant settlements. The success of the oracle in this activity led at last to the establishment of the rule that Herodotus declares to be almost universal in Greece, namely, that no leader of a colony would start without consulting Delphi. Doubtless in many cases the priesthood only gave encouragement to a pre-conceived project. But they were in a unique position for giving direct advice also, and they appear to have used their opportunities with great intelligence.
Their influence on the state cults can be briefly indicated, for it was not by any means far-reaching. They could have felt conscious of no mission to preach Apollo, for his cult was an ancient heritage of the Hellenic stocks. Only the narrower duty devolved upon them of impressing upon the consultants the religious obligation of sending tithes or other offerings. Nevertheless their opportunity of directing the religious ritual and organization of the public worships was great; for Plato’s view that all questions of detail in religion should be left to the decision of the god “who sits on the omphalos” was on the whole in accord with the usual practice of Greece. Such consultations would occur when the state was in some trouble, which would be likely to be imputed to some neglect of religion, and the question to the oracle would commonly be put in this way—“to what god or goddess or hero shall we sacrifice?” The oracle would then be inclined to suggest the name of some divine personage hitherto neglected, or of one whose rites had fallen into decay. Again, Apollo would know the wishes of the other divinities, who were not in the habit of directly communicating with their worshippers; therefore questions about the sacred land of the goddesses at Eleusis would be naturally referred to him. From both these points of view we can understand why Delphi appears to have encouraged the tendency towards hero-worship which was becoming rife in Greece from the 7th century onwards. But the only high cult for which we can discover a definite enthusiasm in the Delphic priesthood was that of Dionysus. And his position at Delphi, where he became the brother-deity of Apollo, sufficiently explains this.
As regards the development of religious morality in Greece, we must reckon seriously with the part played by the oracle. The larger number of deliverances that have come down to us bearing on this point are probably spurious, in the sense that the Pythia did not actually utter them, but they have a certain value as showing the ideas entertained by the cultivated Hellene concerning the oracular god. On the whole, we discern that the moral influence of Delphi was beneficent and on the side of righteousness. It did nothing, indeed, to abolish, it may even have encouraged at times, the barbarous practice of human sacrifice, which was becoming abhorrent to the Greek of the 6th and 5th centuries; but a conservative priesthood is always liable to lag behind the moral progress of an age in respect of certain rites, and in other respects it appears that the “Holy Ones” of Delphi kept well abreast of the Hellenic advance in ethical thought. An oracle attributed to the Pythoness by Theopompus (Porph. De abstinentia, 2, 16 and 17) expresses the idea contained in the story of “the widow’s mite,” that the deity prefers the humble offering of the righteous poor to the costly and pompous sacrifice of the rich. Another, of which the authenticity is vouched for by Herodotus (vi. 86), denounces the contemplated perjury and fraud of a certain Glaucus, and declares to the terrified sinner that to tempt God was no less a sin than to commit the actual crime. A later χρησμός, for which Plutarch (de Pyth. Or. p. 404 B) is the authority, embodies the charitable conception of forgiveness for venial faults committed under excessive stress of temptation: “God pardons what man’s nature is too weak to resist.” And in one most important branch of morality, with which progressive ancient law was intimately concerned, namely, the concept of the sin of homicide, we have reason for believing that the Apoline oracle played a leading part. Perhaps so early as the 8th century, it came to lay stress on the impurity of bloodshed and to organize and impose a ritual of purification; and thus to assist the development and the clearer definition of the concept of murder as a sin and the growth of a theory of equity which recognizes extenuating or justifying circumstances. Gradually, as Greek ethics escaped the bondage of ritual and evolved the idea of spiritual purity of conscience, this found eloquent expression in the utterances imputed to the Pythoness. Many of these are no doubt literary fictions; but even these are of value as showing the popular view about the oracular god, whose temple and tripod were regarded as the shrine and organ of the best wisdom and morality of Greece. The downfall of Greek liberty before Macedon destroyed the political influence of the Delphic oracle; but for some centuries after it still retained a certain value for the individual as a counsellor and director of private conscience. But in the latter days of paganism it was eclipsed by the oracles of Claros and Branchidae.
Authorities.—A. Bouché-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité, in 4 vols., is still the chief work: cf. L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. iv. pp. 179-233; Buresch, Apollo Klarios; Bernard Haussoullier, Études sur l'histoire de Milet et du Didymeion; Legrand, “Questions oraculaires” in Revue des études grecques, vol. xiv.; Pomtow’s article on “Delphoi” in Pauly-Wissowa Realencyclopädie.
Ancient Authorities,—Plutarch, De Pythia Oraculo and De defectu oraculorum; Cicero, De divinatione; Euseb. Praep. Ev. 4, 2, 14. (L. R. F.)
- Phaedrus, p. 244.
- Serv. Verg. Aen. iv. 377; Paus. ii. 19. 3.
- Steph. Byz. s.v. Σοῦρα. Plut. De sollert. anim. p. 976 c. Ael. Nat. anim. xii. 1.
- Ael. Nat. anim. xi. 2.
- Schol. Pind. Ol. 6. 111.
- vii. 22. 2.
- Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, iv., p. 221.
- Hom. Il. xvi. 233, Od. xiv. 327; Hesiod, ap. Schol. Soph. Trach. 1169; Aesch. Prom. Vinc. 829.
- Nikander, Theriaka, 612; Schol. ibid.
- See Robertson-Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 128, quoting Sozomen v. 19.
- Ammian. Marcell. xxii. 12; cf. Plut. Vita Caes. c. 19.
- Paus. iii. 25. 8.
- Paus. vii. 21. 11.
- Paus. i. 32. 2.
- Cic. De div. i. 76. Suid. s.v. πυθώ. Paus. vii. 25. 10.
- Plut. Vita Pyrrh. c. 6.
- Diod. Sic. xiii. 97.
- See Oppé on “The Chasm at Delphi,” Journ. of Hellenic Studies (1904).
- De defect. Orac. c. 43.
- Paus. ii, 24, 1.
- Farnell, op. cit. iii. 11.
- The prophetic fountain at Branchidae is attested by Strabo, p. 814, and in a confused mystic passage of Iamblichus, De Myst. 3, 11.
- Nat. Hist. ii. 232.
- Iambl. loc. cit.
- Herod, i. 56.
- Republ. 427 A.
- Farnell, Cults, vol. iv. p. 300, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 139-152.
- Aelian, Var. Hist. iii. 44: Anth. Pal. xiv. 71 and 74.