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

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. (taken
from wikipedia)


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

    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


    "... 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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