One of the mixed blessings of being human is the ability to formulate thoughts and make strategic decisions in response to circumstances rather than just react in an innate way. The “curse” aspect of this trait is the frustration of not knowing the future. We realize—often too late—that our plans may be thwarted by unforeseen events. Even if we can see a crisis, not knowing its trajectory or the outcome can paralyze our thinking. Logic and prudence are easily overcome by preoccupation with the unknown and the result is irrational thought and action (Rule 2). Certainly, this is a widespread phenomenon as I write this during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
But obsession with the unknown is not unique to us or our times. Antiquity is full of records and remains attesting to this most human pathos, the “need” to know the future. This post, then, is the first of an envisioned(!) series on places, events, and practices from the ancient world involving attempts to discern information normally unknowable to mortals.
“Oracle” designates a medium, often a priest or priestess, through which a god or goddess is supposed to deliver a message. The word also is used for places where such messages are delivered and for the answers received when inquiring there. These things have been around since the beginning of recorded civilization, but it was in ancient Greece that oracles became an institutionalized and essential component of religious practice. The earliest Greek oracle, referenced already in Homer, was at Dodona and is the subject of this piece.
Dodona was an oracle of Zeus instead of Apollo, who held sway at most others. It was also at the fringe of the classical Hellenic world in Epirus (northern Greece). Homer’s references, from perhaps the 7th century BC, have Achilles calling on “lord Zeus of Dodona, . . . wintry Dodona, where the Selloi your interpreters sleep on the ground with unwashed feet” (Homer, Iliad 16.131) and Odysseus “gone to Dodona, to hear the will of Zeus from the high-crested oak of the god” (Odyssey 14.321). Archaeology has revealed cult activity at the site from the Late Bronze Age (the putative time of Homer’s events) and an open-air sanctuary with bronze cauldrons encircling a sacred oak until the late 5th century BC. Later writers assume that the tree gave oracles through the rustling of its leaves (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.552).
At some point in historic times, the prophetic men gave way to a trio of “old women” who assumed the duties of priestesses and interpreters. Herodotus (the “Father of History,” writing in the 5th century), relates two tales of the shrine’s establishment. From Egyptian priests in Thebes he heard that two women in service of the cult of Zeus there were abducted and sold in Dodona and Siwa, where they founded similar oracles. At Dodona, however, he was told that two black doves flew from Thebes, alighting in trees at the two places. The one in Dodona spoke from the oak with a human voice, saying that an oracle should be established. Herodotus attempted to harmonize the competing stories by surmising that the women slaves established oracles but, being foreigners, sounded like birds and were called “doves” (Herodotus, Histories 2.53-55)! In any case, the priestesses were still referred to as Πέλειαι (“doves”) in the 2nd century AD (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.12.2).
In the 4th century BC at small temple was built adjacent to the sacred oak, with additions of a perimeter wall and Ionic colonnades over the next century. These changes may be related to revision of the interpretive process and “competition” (Rule 3) with the more central oracle at Delphi (to be treated in a future post). Temples to associated deities, including Zeus’ local consort Dione (the feminine form of Zeus), were built in a line with the “sacred house,” and a theater and other “big city” features added.
Exactly how oracles were obtained at Dodona is not clear, but we are privy to the kinds of questions asked. Excavations have uncovered many lead tablets with questions for the god inscribed on them, a few of which also contain apparent answers.
Unlike Delphi, where most recorded consultations were about national policy, inquiries at Dodona were overwhelmingly personal in nature. They included questions about business, travel, house-building, and relationships. One, for example, reads:
Callicrates asks the god whether I will have offspring from Nike the wife whom I have by remaining with her and praying to which of the gods.
COVID-19 and the current pandemic atmosphere could easily be imagined as a context for some of the petitions about matters of health and disease. A tablet from the 4th-3rd centuries BC asks:
Leontios asks about his son Leon, whether he will be healthy and cured of the disease which has gripped him?
It is suddenly easy to imagine the anguish of a parent desperate for answers, whether then or now.
Other seekers of advice echo the uncertainty of our own times:
Good luck. Parmenides asks Zeus Naios and Dione whether he will fare better if he stays home?
In the current environment, it doesn’t take an oracle to answer this question. Finally, another fragmentary lead tablet seems to be an early April of 2020 answer to the previous one or a slightly different inquiry from a lock-down area:
. . . for him to stay home and put up with it . . .
An Oracle for you, the reader:
STAY HOME. PUT UP WITH IT. (And read AncientDan)
Thanks for looking!
 OED, s.v. “pathos,” usage 4; viz. “Physical or mental suffering; sorrow” now “obsolete. rare.” (but I like it).
 H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 265.
 Esther Eidinow, Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105.
 Parke, 270 (no. 22); Eidinow, 81 (no. 27).
 Eidinow, 81 (no. 28).
2 thoughts on “Seeking Answers to an Unknown Future in the Distant Past”
It took me a while this week to get to it, but I like this entry. I’ve long placed ancient oracles with modern-day wishing wells, where one playfully tosses a coin without any real or serious expectation of an answer to one’s wish. Though I guess carving a message on a lead tablet does add a few more layers of seriousness to the endeavor.