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Ancient Oracles:

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Ancient Oracle of DELPHI

Ancient Oracle of Delphi

What Is An Oracle

An oracle is a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinion; an infallible authority, usually spiritual in nature. It may also be a revealed prediction or precognition of the future, from deities, that is spoken through another object or life-form (e.g.: augury and auspice).


In the ancient world many sites gained a reputation for the dispensing of oracular wisdom: they too became known as "oracles," and the oracular utterances, called khresmoi in Greek, were often referred to under the same name—a name derived from the Latin verb orare, to speak. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

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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 favoured with an answer, they acted with more spirit,  and with more vigour, 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 Antinous, 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, &c. 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 neighbouring 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 neighbouring 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 the  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. Herodotus, 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 behaviour 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, splendour, 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.





    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 fortelling 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,  and 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 vapour 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 vapour  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 vapour 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 qualificationnecessary was to be able to  speak and repeat what the god dictated............................................





    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 is 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. I. 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 neighbouring 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 name 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 harbour.





         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 midnight, 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 Aethiopia.





        Dodona was a town of Thresprotia in Epirus. There was in its  neighbourhood, 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  neighbouring 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 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 honourable; 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, &c. 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' & 'laous,' though generally supposed to be terms of  ill luck, were always used by the augurs in an auspicious sense.





    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 humour; 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 now  began 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 proferred 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 tells 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 writings, 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.


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