Few superstitions have been so famous, and so seductive to the minds of men during a number of ages, as oracles. In treaties of peace or truces, the Greeks never forgot to stipulate for the liberty of resorting to oracles. No colony undertook new settlements, no war was declared, no important affair begun, without first consulting the oracles.
Oracles : Shrines where a god speaks to human beings through the mouths of priests or priestesses. The concept of the god become vocal in this manner was by no means confined to Greece or Egypt. Our object here is to deal with the most celebrated oracles of all nations as well as those of antiquity. Probably all the primitive gods— those, that is to say, of the fetish class, now under consideration—were consulted as oracles; it is certain that they derived this character in a state of animism and that they transmitted it to gods of the most advanced type. In early times the great question was whether man would have food on the morrow or no; perhaps the first oracle was the spirit which directed the hungry savage in his hunting and fishing expeditions. The Esquimaux still consult spirits for this purpose, and their wizards are as familiar with the art of giving ambiguous replies to their anxious clients as were the well-informed keepers of the oracles of Greece. As advancement proceeded, the direction of the gods was obtained in all the affairs of private and public life.
Greece: The Oracle of Delphi
When Jupiter was once desirous to ascertain the central point of the earth, he dispatched two eagles, or two crows, as they are named by Strabo. The messengers took flight in opposite courses, from sunrise and sunset; and they met at Delphi, which place was thenceforward dignified with the title " The navel of the earth; " an " umbilicus " being represented in white marble within its celebrated temple. Delphi thus became a place of great distinction, but it was not yet oracular, till the fumes which issued from a neighboring cave were first discovered by a shepherd named Coretas. His attention was forcibly attracted to a spot round which whenever his goats were browsing they gamboled and bleated more than was their wont. Whether these fumes arose in consequence of an earthquake, or whether they were generated by demoniacal art is not to be ascertained; but the latter hypothesis is thought by Clasen to be the more probable of the two. Coretas, on approaching the spot, was seized with ecstasy, and uttered words which were deemed inspired. It was not long before the danger arising in consequence of the excitement of curiosity among the neighbors, the deadly stupefaction often produced among those who inhaled the fumes without proper caution, and the inclination which it aroused in some to plunge themselves into the depths of the cavern below, occasioned the fissure to be covered by a sort of table, having a hole in the centre, and called a tripod, so that those who wished to try the experiment could resort there in safety. Eventually a young girl, of unsophisticated manners, became the chosen medium of the responses, now deemed oracular and called Pythian, as proceeding from Apollo, the slayer of Python, to whom Delphi was consecrated. A sylvan bower of laurel branches was erected over the spot, and at length the marble temple and the priesthood of Delphi arose where the Pythoness, seated on her throne, could be charged with the divine " afflatus," and was thus rendered the vehicle of Apollo's dictation.
As the oracle became more celebrated, its prophetic machinery was constructed of more costly materials. The tripod was then formed of gold, but the lid, which was placed in its hollow rim, in order to afford the Pythoness a more secure seat, continued to be made of brass. She prepared herself by drinking out of a sacred fountain (Castalia), adjoining the crypt, the waters of which were reserved for her only, and in which she bathed her hair; by chewing a laurel leaf, and by circling her brows with a laurel crown. The person who made inquiry from the oracle, first offered a victim, and then having written his question in a note-book, handed it to the Pythoness, before she ascended the tripod ; and he also as well as the priestess, wore a laurel crown. In early times the oracle spoke only in one month of the year, named " Byssus," in which it originated; and at first only on the seventh day of that month, which was esteemed the birth-day of Apollo, and was called; Polypthonus."
Virginity was at first an indispensable requisite in the Pythoness; on account, as Diodorus tells us, of the purity of that state and its relation to Diana; moreover, because virgins were thought better adapted than others of their sex to keep oracular mysteries secret and inviolate. But an untoward accident having occurred to one of these consecrated damsels, the guardians of the temple, in order, as they imagined, to prevent its repetition for the future, permitted no one to fulfil the duties of the office till she had attained the mature age of fifty; they still indulged her, however, with the use of a maiden's habit. The response was always delivered in Greek.
Oracle of Dodona
Another celebrated oracle, that of Jupiter, was at Dodona, in Epirus, from which Jupiter derived the name of Dodonus. It was situated at the foot of Mount Tomarus, in a wood of oaks; and there the answers were given by an old woman under the name of Pelias. Pelias means dove in the Attic dialect, from which the fable arose, that the doves prophesied in the groves of Dodona. According to Herodotus, this legend contains the following incident, which gave rise to the oracle:—Two priestesses of Egyptian Thebes were carried away by Phoenician merchants; one of them was conveyed to Libya, where she founded the oracle of Jupiter Ammon; the other to Greece. The latter one remained in the Dodonian wood, which was much frequented on account of the acorns. There she had a temple built at the foot of an oak in honor of Jupiter, whose priestess she had been in Thebes; and here afterwards a regular oracle was founded. He adds, that this priestess was called a dove, because her language could not be understood. The Dodonid and African oracles were certainly connected, and Herodotus distinctly states, that the manner of prophecy in Dodona was the same as that in Egyptian Thebes. Diana was worshipped in Dodona in conjunction with Zeus, and a female figure 'was associated with Amun in the Libyan Ammonium. Besides this, the dove was the bird of Aphrodite, the Diana of Zeus, or the Mosaic divine love, which saved mankind from complete destruction. According to other authors, there was a wondrous intoxicating spring at Dodona; and in later times more material means were employed to produce the prophetic spirit.
Several copper bowls, namely, were placed upon a column, and the statue of a boy beside them. When the wind moved a rod or scourge having three bones attached to chains, it struck upon the metallic bowls, the sound of which was heard by the applicants. These Dodonian tones gave rise to a proverb : as Dodon<sum—an unceasing babbler.
The oracle at Dodona was dedicated to the Pelasgian Zeus, who was worshipped here at the same time as the almighty ruler of the world, and as the friendly associate of mankind. In the course of the theogonic process, Diana was associated with him as his wife,—the mother of Aphrodite. The servants of Zeus were Selles, the priests of Diana, the so-called Peliades. According to Homer, the Selles inhabited the sanctum at Dodona, sleeping upon the earth, and with naked unwashed feet; they served the Pelasgian Zeus. It is probable that they slept upon the earth on the hides of newly-sacrificed animals, to receive prophetic dreams, as was customary at other places, Calchos and Oropus, with many others.
As regards the mantic of Dodona, it was partly natural, from the excitement of the mind, partly artificial. Of the latter we may mention three modes—the ancient oak of Zeus, with its prophetic doves, the miraculous spring, and the celebrated Dodonian bowls of brass.
The far-spreading, speaking tree, the "incredible wonder, as jEschylus calls it, was an oak, a lofty beautiful tree, with evergreen leaves and sweet edible acorns, which according to the belief of the Greeks and Romans, were the first sustenance of mankind. The Pelasgi regarded this tree as the tree of life. In this tree the god was supposed to reside, and the rustling of its leaves and the voices of birds showed his presence. When the questioners entered, the oak rustled, and the Peliades said, " Thus speaks Zeus." Incense was burned beneath it, which may be compared to the altar of Abraham under the oak Ogyges, which had stood there since the world's creation. According to the legend, sacred doves continually inhabited the tree, like the Marsoor oracle at Tiora Mattiene, where a sacred hawk foretells futurity from the top of a wooden pillar.
At the foot of the oak a cold spring gushes as it were from its roots, and from its murmur the inspired priestesses prophesied.
Of this miraculous fountain it is related, that lighted torches being thrust into it were extinguished, and that extinguished torches were re-lit; it also rose and fell at various seasons. " That extinction and rekindling has," says Lassaulx, " perhaps the mystical signification that the usual sober life of the senses must be extinguished, that the prophetic spirit dormant in the soul may be aroused. The torch of human existence must expire, that a divine one may be lighted; the human must die that the divine may be born; the destruction of individuality is the awakening of God in the soul, or, as the mystics say, the setting of sense is the rising of truth."
The extinguishing of a burning light shows that the spring contained carbonic acid gas, which possesses stupefying and deadly properties, like all exhalations arising especially from minerals. The regular rising and sinking of the water is a frequent phenomenon, and has been observed from the earliest ages.
It appears that predictions were drawn from the tones of the Dodonian brass bowls, as well as from the rustling of the sacred oak and the murmuring of the sacred well.
The Dodonian columns, with that which stood upon them, appears to express the following:—The medium-sized brazen bowl was a hemisphere, and symbolised of heaven ; the boy-like male statue a figure of the Demiurgos, or constructor of the universe ; the bell-like notes a symbol of the harmony of the universe and music of the spheres. That the Demiurgos is represented as a boy is quite in the spirit of Egypto-Pelasgian theology as it reigned in Samo-thrace. The miraculous bell told all who came to Dodona to question the god that they were on holy ground, must inquire with pure hearts, and be silent when the god replied. It is easily imagined that these tones, independent and uninfluenced by human will, must have made a deep impression upon the minds of pilgrims. Those who questioned the god were also obliged to take a purificatory bath in the temple, similar to that by which the Delphian Pythia prepared herself for prophecy.
Besides this artificial soothsaying from signs, natural divination by the prophetic movements of the mind was practiced. Where there are prophesying priestesses, there must also be ecstatic ones, similar to those in the magnetic , state. Sophocles calls the Dodonean priestesses divinely inspired : Plato (Phaedrus) says, more decidedly, that the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona had done much good in sacred madness, in private and public affairs, to their country, but in their senses little or nothing. We may see from this that the Delphian Pythia, as well as the Dodonian priestesses, did not give their oracles in the state of common waking consciousness, but in real ecstasy, to which the frequent incense — and drink — offerings would assist. Aristides states, still more clearly than the others, that the priestesses at Dodona neither knew, before being seized upon by the spirit, what would be said, nor remembered afterwards, when their natural consciousness returned, what they had uttered ; so that all others, rather than they, knew it.
Oracle of Jupiter Trophonius
Trophonius, according to Pausanias, was the most skilful architect of his day. Concerning the origin of his oracle there are many opinions. Some say he was swallowed up by an earthquake in the cave which afterwards became prophetic ; others, that after having completed the Adytum of Apollo at Delphi (a very marvellous specimen of his workmanship, which Dr. Clarke thought might at some time be discovered on account of its singularity), he declined asking any specific pay, but modestly requested the god to grant him whatever was the greatest benefit a man could receive ; and in three days afterwards he was found dead. This oracle was discovered after two years of scarcity in its neighborhood, when the Pythoness ordered the starving population, who applied to her, to consult Trophonius in Lebadaea. The deputation sent for that purpose could not discover any trace of such an oracle, till Saon, the oldest among them, obtained the desired information by following the flight of a swarm of bees. The responses were given by the genius of Trophonius to the inquirer, who was compelled to descend into a cave, of the nature of which Pausanias has left a very lively representation. The votary resided for a certain number of days in a sanctuary of good fortune, in which he underwent customary lustrations, abstained from hot baths, but dipped in the river Hercyna, and was plentifully supplied with meat from the victims which he sacrificed. Many, indeed, were the sacred personages whom he was bound to propitiate with blood; among them were Trophonius himself and his sons, Apollo, Saturn, Jupiter, Vasileus, Juno Henioche, and Ceres Eurbpa, who is affirmed to have been the nurse of Trophonius. From an inspection of the entrails, a soothsayer pronounced whether Trophonius was in fit humour for consultation. None of the "exta," however favourable they might have been, were of the slightest avail, unless a ram, immolated to Agamedes at the mouth of the cave on the very night of the descent, proved auspicious. When that propitious signal had been given ,the priests led the inquirer to the river Hercyna, where he was anointed and washed by two Lebadeean youths, thirteen years of age, named "Hermai." He was then carried farther to the two spring-heads of the stream, and there he drank first of Lethe, in order that he might forget all past events and present his mind to the oracle as a "tabula rasa"; and secondly of Mnemosyne, that he might firmly retain remembrance of every occurrence which was about to happen within the cave. An image, reputed to be the workmanship of Daedalus, was then exhibited to him, and so great was its sanctity, that no other eyes but those of a person about to undertake the adventure of the cave were ever permitted to behold it. Next he was clad in a linen robe, girt with ribbons, and shod with sandals peculiar to the country. The entrance to the oracle was a very narrow aperture in a grove on the summit of a mountain, protected by a marble parapet about two cubits in height, and by brazen spikes above it. The upper part of the cave was artificial, like an oven, but no steps were cut in the rock, and the descent was made by a ladder brought to the spot on each occasion. On approaching the mouth of the adytum itself the adventurer lay flat, and holding in each hand some honeyed cakes, first inserted his feet into the aperture, then drew his knees and the remainder of his body after them, till he was caught by some hidden force, and carried downward as if by a whirlpool. The responses were given sometimes by a vision, sometimes by words; and a forcible exit was then made through the original entrance, and in like manner feet foremost. There was only a single instance on record of any "person who had descended failing to return and that one deserved his fate; for his object was to discover treasure, not to consult the oracle. Immediately on issuing from the cavern, the inquirer was placed on a seat called that of Mnemosyne, not far from the entrance, and there the priests demanded a relation of everything which he had seen and heard; he was then carried once again to the sanctuary of good fortune, where he remained for some time overpowered by terror and lost in forget-fulness. By degrees his former powers of intellect returned, and, in contradiction to the received opinion, he recovered the power of smiling.
Dr. Clarke, in his visit to Lebadaea, found everything belonging to the hieron of Trophonius in its original state, excepting that the narrow entrance to the adytum was choked with rubbish. The Turkish governor was afraid of a popular commotion if he gave permission for cleansing this aperture. Mr. Cripps, however, introduced the .whole length of his body into the cavity, and by thrusting a long pole before him found it utterly stopped. The waters of Lethe and Mnemosyne at present supply the washerwomen of Lebadaea.
Oracles of Delos and Branchus
The oracle of "Delos," notwithstanding its high reputation, had few peculiarities: its virtue was derived from the nativity of Apollo and Diana in that island. At Dindyma, or Didyma, near Miletus, Apollo presided over the oracle of the "Branchidse," so called from either one of his sons or of his favourites Branchus of Thessaly, whom he instructed in soothsaying while alive, and canonized after death. The responses were given by a priestess .who bathed and fasted for three days before consultation, and then sat upon an axle or bar, with a charming-rod in her hand, and inhaling the steam from a hot spring. Offerings and ceremonies were necessary to render the inspiration effectual, including baths, fasting, and solitude, and lamblichus censures those who despise them.
Oracle of the Clarian Apollo at Colophon
Of the oracle of Apollo at Colophon, lamblichus relates that it prophesied by drinking of water. "It is known that a subterranean Spring exists there, from which the prophet drinks; after he has done so, and has performed many consecrations and sacred customs on certain nights, he predicts the future; but he is invisible to all who are present. That this water can induce prophecy is clear, but how it happens, no one knows, says the proverb." It, might appear that the divine spirit pervades this water, but it is not so. God .is in all things, and is reflected in this spring, thereby giving it the prophetic power. This inspiration of the water is not of an entirely divine nature, for it only prepares us and purifies the light of the soul, so that we are fit to receive the divine spirit. There the divine presence is of such a nature that it punishes every one who is capable of receiving the god. The soothsayer uses this spirit like a work-tool over which he has no control. After the moment of prediction he does not always remember that which has passed ; often he can scarcely collect his faculties. Long before the water-drinking, the soothsayer must abstain day and night from food, and observe religious customs, which are impossible to ordinary people, by which means he is made capable of receiving the god. It is only in this manner that he is able to hold the mirror of his soul to the radiance of free inspiration."
Oracle of Amphiaraus
Another very celebrated oracle was that of Amphiaraus, who distinguished himself so much in the Theban war. He was venerated at Oropus, in Bceotia, as a seer. This oracle was consulted more in sickness than on any other occasion. The applicants bad here, also, to lie upon the skin of a sacrificed ram, and during sleep had the remedies of their diseases revealed to them. Not only, however, were sacrifices and lustrations performed here, but the priests prescribed other preparations by which the minds of the sleepers were to be enlightened. They had to fast one day, and refrain from wine three. Amphilochus, as son of Amphiaraus, had a similar oracle at Mallos, in Cilicia, which Pausanias calls the most trustworthy and credible of the age. Plutarch speaks of the oracles of Amphilochus and Mopsus as being in a very flourishing state; and Lucian mentions that all those who wished to question the oracle had to lay down two oboles.
The oracles of Ancient Egypt were as numerous as those of Greece. It must have been due to foreign influence that the oracle, that played so important a part in the Greek world at this time, was also thoroughly established on the banks of the Nile. Herodotus knew of no fewer than seven gods in Egypt who spake by oracles. Of these, the most reliable was considered to give an intimation of their intentions by means of remarkable events. These are carefully observed by the Egyptians, who write down what follows upon these prodigies. They aiso consider that the fate of a person is fixed by the day of his birth, for every day belongs to a special god. The oracle of Jupiter Ammon at the oasis of that name and the same deity at Thebes existed from the twentieth to the twenty-second Dynasty. He was consulted not only concerning the fate of empires but upon such trifling matters as the identification of a thief. In all serious matters, however, it was sought to ascertain his views. Those about to make their wills sought his oracle, and judgments were ratified by his word.
According to the inscriptions, intercourse between king and god was arranged as follows :—The King present himself before the god and preferred a direct question, so framed as to admit of an answer by simple yes or no ; in reply the god nodded an affirmative, or shook his head in negation. This has suggested the idea that the oracles were worked by manipulating statues of divinities mechanically set in motion by the priests. But as yet no such statues have been found in the Valley of the Nile, and contrivances of this kind could have had no other object than to deceive the people,—a supposition apparently excluded in this case by the fact that it was customary fcr the king to visit the god alone and in secret. Probably the king presented himself on such occasions before the sacred animal in which the god was incarnate, believing that the divine will would be manifested by its movements."
The Apis bull also possessed oracles. Bes, too, god of pleasure or of the senses, had an oracle at Abydos.
Among the American races the oracle was frequently encountered. All the principal gods of aboriginal America universally act as oracles. With the ancient inhabitants of Peru, the huillcas partook of the nature of oracles. Many of these were serpents, trees, and rivers, the noises made by which appeared to the primitive Peruvians—as, indeed, they do to primitive folk all over -the world—to be of the quality of articulate speech. Both -the Huillcamayu and the Apurimac rivers at Cuzco were huillca oracles of this kind, as their names, " Huillca river" and " Great Speaker," denote. These oracles often set the mandate of the Inca himself at defiance, occasionally supporting popular opinion against his policy.
The Peruvian Indians of the Andes range within recent generations continued to adhere to the superstitions they had inherited from their fathers. A rare and interesting account of these says that they " admit an evil being, the inhabitant of the centre of the earth, whom they consider as the author of their misfortunes, and at the mention of whose name they tremble. The most shrewd among them take advantage of this belief to obtain respect, and represent themselves as his delegates. Under the denomination of mohanes, or agoreros, they are consulted even on the most trivial occasions. They preside over the intrigues of love, the health of the community, and the taking of the field. Whatever repeatedly occurs to defeat their prognostics, falls on themselves; and they are wont to pay for their deceptions very dearly. They chew a species of vegetable called piripiri, and throw it into the air, accompanying this act by certain recitals and incantations, to injure some, to benefit others, to procure rain and the inundation of rivers, or, on the other hand, to occasion settled weather, and a plentiful store of agricultural productions. Any such result, having been casually verified on a single occasion, suffices to confirm the Indians in their faith, although they may have been cheated a thousand times.
There is an instance on record of how the huillca could refuse on occasion to recognise even royalty itself. Manco, the Inca who had been given the kingly power by Pizarro, offered a sacrifice to one of these oracular shrines. The oracle refused to recognize him, through the medium of its guardian priest, stating that Manco was not the rightful Inca. Manco therefore caused the oracle, which was in the shape of a rock, to be thrown down, whereupon its guardian spirit emerged in the form of a parrot and flew away. It is probable that the bird thus liberated had been taught by the priests to answer to the questions of those who came to consult the shrine. But we learn that on Manco commanding that the parrot should be pursued it sought another rock, which opened to receive it, and the spirit of the huillca was transferred to this new abode.
Like the greater idols of Mexico, most of the principal huacas of Peru seem to have been also oracles. The guardians of the great speaking huacas appear to have exercised in virtue of their office an independent influence which -was sometimes sufficiently powerful to resist the Apu-Ccapac-Inca himself. It was perhaps natural that they should be the exponents of the popular feeling which supported them, rather than of the policy of the sovereign chiefs, whose interest it was to suppress them : there was even a tradition that the Huillac-umu, a venerable huillac whom the rest acknowledged as their head, had i,p old times possessed jurisdiction over the supreme war-chiefs.
Many Indian tribes employ fetishes as oracles, and among the ancient Mexicans practically all the great gods were oracular.
Did You Enjoy This Article? Share It With Your Friends
Shop at the
New Age Store