1902 Encyclopedia > Oracle


ORACLE, It was a universal belief in the ancient world that there is a capacity in the human mind to divine the will of God _____), Plato, Phcedr., 242 C). This capacity is not equally developed in all men, and, practically, a very few persons, in whom it is strong, are distinguished from the mass as pavra's. These are able to understand the methods by which the gods reveal their intentions to men. There occur cases where the gods speak directly to men, where a divine voice is heard issuing its commands or warnings, but these in-stances are confined, except in a few remarkable historical cases (such as the appearance of Pan to the Athenian messenger, ¿90 B.C., Herod., vi. 105), to the heroic age and to epic poetry. Setting these aside, wre find that the divine will was revealed to the interpreting medium in two ways—by inspiration and by signs. In the former case the divine influence overpowers the soul of the medium and takes entire possession of it for the time. The medium cannot himself bring on a revelation, but is at rare intervals affected by the power of the god, his con-sciousness ceases, and the god speaks through him words which he is himself unable to control or even to under-stand. So, for example, the prophetes of Apollo Ptoios gave a response in the Carian language, which no one except the questioner could understand (Herod., viii. 135). The second method of revelation, by signs, required a distinct art of interpretation; certain events, phenomena in the heavens or in bird or animal life, the conduct of sacrificial animals and the appearance presented by their entrails, &c, presaged the will of the god to him who pos-sessed the art of interpreting them. The second method was called artificial (_____), in opposition to the first, which is direct and artless (_____).

In every case the revelation of the divine will is depend-ent on the direct act of the god; he affects the soul of the /iai'ns when and where he pleases ; he sends, when he chooses, the signs from which his intentions can be inferred. There was, however, a belief that at certain places the god gave revelations more frequently than at others. Such places were generally characterized by some marked physical feature. At these places there wrere established regular institutions, with a staff of priests and prophets, to which the neighbours resorted for counsel; the Latin term "oracle" (in Greek pavreia, ______) is the general name. With regard to these institutions we have to consider (1) their method of interpretation, in so far as this is not most naturally given under the articles treating of the particular localities, and (2) their rank and influ-ence among the Greeks.

1. The methods of interpretation varied greatly. Even at the same oracle several methods were often practised side by side. In the most primitive the spirits of the dead appeared and conversed directly with the inquirer. This method was rare in Greece; but an undoubtedly good example is recorded (Herod., v. 92) in Thesprotia, where Periander sent to consult the shade of his wife Melissa; a Biblical instance is the apparition of the shade of Samuel to Saul. The visit of Odysseus to the lower world is ob-viously a mere poetical version of the consultation of a Boeotian oracle of Tiresias, where the hero spoke directly to his devotees. In the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadea in Boeotia the method of inquiry was certainly modelled after the idea of a descent to the infernal world. Beside the oracle were the two springs of Memory and Oblivion, which, according to the mystic teaching, were the two foun-tains of the lower world. The inquirer descended into an underground place, and, it is said, saw such sights that he never smiled again. This method belonged to a very primitive stage of Greek history; and it is certain that Greek religion in general, and many oracles in particular, had experienced a long development before the time which we know best. Probably this method was originally more widely practised than we can actually trace.

The common method of revelation in hero-oracles, and in the oracles of some gods, was through dreams. Hero-oracles were certainly in their earliest form simply oracles of the dead; the word fjpm is a generic term for a dead man. We can trace occasional survivals of the most primi-tive form of the hero-oracle. The person who seeks advice goes to sleep over the actual grave, and the dead man appears in a dream. A type of the usual method, which was called "incubation" or _____ is the oracle of Amphiaraus near Oropus, beside the spring where the hero had risen from the earth to become a god. The in-quirer, after abstaining from wine for three days and from all food for twenty-four hours, slept in the temple on the skin of a ram which he had sacrificed. The oracles of Gsea or Ge are closely connected with those of the dead and of heroes. The Earth is giver of responses, as being the home of the dead, who sleep in her womb, but who can be called forth to give counsel to their descendants living on earth. Earth-oracles also belong to a primitive stage of Hellenic religion, and had in historical times either given place to oracles of more developed Hellenic type or occupied a very secondary position. In Olympia it is prob-able that the oracle of Gaea was the oldest institution, and it is universally recognized in ancient and modern times that' the Delphic oracle originally belonged to the same goddess. Probably the cleft in the earth in the Delphic adyton was originally conceived as the passage of communication between the dead under the earth and the living on its surface. A uniform tradition (Paus., x. 5, 3; Aesch., Cho., 1 sq.) recognizes one most important fact: in the progress of Greek history, as religious thought developed, there was a progressive development in the character of the Delphic oracle. Gsea was replaced by Themis, a more moralized conception of the Earth-goddess, as the incarnation of natural order and law; but Apollo, the highest creation of Hellenic religion, finally occupies Delphi as the prophet and counsellor of his people. The oracles of Apollo work through inspiration. In Delphi the seer was a woman, Pythia, who was thrown into a state of ecstatic frenzy by the influence of a vapour ascending from a cleft in the earth within the adyton, and while in this state uttered words and cries which contained the answer of Apollo. All the methods of interpretation by signs were practised at different oracles in Greece ; even in Apolline oracles, such as the Delphic, the artificial method was employed along with that by inspiration.

2. The original purpose of the oracles was not to fore-tell the future, but to give counsel as to conduct in doubtful and difficult situations. In cases where human prudence and skill seemed to fail, recourse was had to the oracle, and the god gave advice to his people. Now it was the universal practice that the priests should take the answers, usually incoherent and unintelligible, of the seers and re-duce them to form, often metrical; practically the oracles were worked by the priests, and it is obvious that their character depended entirely on the character of the priests and of the nation as a whole. The influence of the oracles could be good only so long as the priests were not only honest and of lofty intentions, but also in a more advanced intellectual position than the people. In the early age of Greek history, when there was no education except what was to be gained by wide intercourse, the priests of such an oracle as Delphi occupied a most advantageous position. To Delphi as the yfjs opcpaXos, the central point of the civilized world, came embassies from every Greek city, and even from great non-Greek states such as Lydia and Phrygia. It was a knot where every strand in civilized life was united. In accordance with this we find that almost all the great lawgivers and sages of the 8th and 7th centuries B.c. were in close relation with the Delphic oracle. All questions of colonization were referred to the oracle, and it is due a good deal to this central guiding influence that the overflow of the teeming popu-lation of Greece was directed so systematically. It is instructive to compare the position of the oracles in Greece with those of the kindred races of Asia Minor. In the latter country the god is supreme over his people, the government is a pure theocracy, and the priests, as interpreters of the divine will, are absolute masters of the servants of the god. In Greece it is wholly different. In both cases the oracles are the creation of the national genius,—in Asia Minor Oriental and stationary, in Greece living and progressive. In the earliest time we can trace the influence of the oracles discouraging the relentless blood-feud, distinguishing classes of murder, and allowing purification and expiation in suitable cases. They make the sanctity of oaths between man and man a special duty ; Apollo regards even hesitation to keep a pledge as already a sin (Herod., vi. 86; cf, i. 159). They are the centre of unions or amphictyonies which bind their mem-bers to observe certain duties and show mercy to their fellow-members ; and Delphi, as the oracle of an amphic-tyony including great part of Greece, had an important share in promoting that ideal unity of the whole country which, though never realized, yet floated always before the Greek mind. The oracles did something towards uniting the efforts of Greeks against foreigners, and towards spreading Greek influence abroad in a systematic way.

As education became more general the qualification of superior knowledge necessary to the proper working of the oracles was more difficult to keep up. At the same time the growth of political life in the states intensified their mutual enmities, and made it impossible for the oracles to maintain an attitude of perfect justice, neutral-ity, and superiority. Though the custom continued till a late period in Greek history that each state should consult the oracle in difficulties, yet complaints of partiality be-come frequent. Concurrently with the degradation in this respect there grew a demoralization in the whole tone of the oracles : they were consulted by all in the most triv'al matters. It became an object to the priests to facilitate the access of votaries who contributed to the wealth of the temple. Whereas originally the Delphic oracle spoke only once a year, the number of days on which it was open to inquirers was gradually increased; and other oracles in like manner turned their attention to the wants of every applicant. In Dodona a large number of leaden tablets have been discovered containing the questions addressed to the god by inquirers; they range in date from the end of the 5th century B.C. onwards, and do not give any very high idea of the kind of difficulties in which the god was asked to advise his worshipper.

See Carapanos, Dodone, also an important article in Fleekeisen's Jahrbucher for 1883. The most complete work on oracles is Bouchy Leclerc's Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité. (W. M. RA.)

The above article was written by: Prof. William M. Ramsay.

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