Rolling the Dice in Uncertain Times

This is the second in my series exploring the similarities of human nature in the present crazy situation (the COVID-19 Pandemic, for anyone who might be reading this much later) and in the past; specifically in the search for answers to questions about the unknown. In antiquity this was often done by consultation of oracles or other forms of divination.

NOTE: the first installment had pitifully low readership, so you should go read it now for context: Seeking Answers to an Unknown Future in the Distant Past. And here is a nice picture, somewhat related to the content, so you know where to restart when you come back:

The dramatically situated theater at Termessos, on the E edge of Lycia in modern Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

As I write, lead news stories are no longer about the growing severity of the COVID-19 Pandemic, but rather debates about “reopening” the economy. In the US, different states have taken varying approaches, with protests, demonstrations, pleas, and public service announcements against all of them. Media outlets refer to easing of restrictions where infection rates have not declined as a “gamble” or even “rolling the dice.” Indeed, “rolling the dice” means to take a gamble, in the sense of taking an action which involves risk for the chance of potential reward. Gambling for the sake of the risk/reward thrill existed in ancient times as it does today. Gambling by “playing dice” was a major pastime and social problem in ancient Rome—and throughout the empire, as texts and archaeological finds attest. Dice are the objects used to introduce randomness into the process, making it a game.

A Roman period die, made from clay, discovered at Lystra (Turkey) by Ancient Dan’s daughter (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-05-04)

“Playing dice,” however, is an evolution of both the activity itself and the object used. The verb “playing” reveals the choice to engage in the activity for fun or pursuit of satisfaction. The “gamble” of easing stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses before a pandemic is over is more of a forced choice. The goal is clear and necessary (get back to a productive life), but risk (potential spread of illness) makes the choice difficult and not “fun.” In antiquity, it was common to put such matters to oracles or other forms of divination. In addition to obtaining a presumably unbiased opinion, this was also no doubt an effort to take the decision out of human hands or to avoid direct blame for wrong roads taken. It may seem easy to poke fun at such actions but, in truth, humans share the same fears and instincts in all periods.

Astragali; knucklebones of domestic animals, usually sheep or goats. Sadly, my collection is in storage far away, so I borrowed this image from Wikipedia . . .

The simplest form of choosing between unclear options is by random chance, like flipping a coin. Dice, as noted above, can also be used to produce random outcomes and can also provide more complication than a simple yes or no answer. The direct ancestors to common six-sided dice known today are ancient astragali, the knucklebones of domesticated livestock—usually sheep or goats. These knucklebones have rounded ends and four distinct faces (with varying statistical probability), so that one of the four will be face up when thrown. In the ancient world, the four faces—two broad and two narrow, of which one of each was concave—had known names and values of 1, 3, 4, and 6. Opposite faces adding up to 7 as in modern dice. An astragalus could be ground down into a cube shape with 5 and 2 assigned to the new sides. The result is essentially a modern die. This is why old timers like Ancient Dan may remember even older folk colloquially refer to rolling dice as “throwing the ol’ knucklebones.” Astragali were also used for children’s (and adult) games, but when they were thrown for decision making, the process was called “casting lots,” a method known to readers of the Bible.[1] [It was explained to me as a kid in Sunday School that casting lots “was a lot more like drawing straws than throwing dice” when, in fact, it is exactly like throwing dice!]

Lower city wall and main entry gate at Termessos in Lycia, which must have something to do with the subject of this post (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-20)

Of course the major oracles were the gold standard for getting a divine answer on what action to take in a difficult forced decision. Perhaps simply throwing goat bones oneself may have seemed too flippant or lacking in authority. A convenient, if curious, solution could be found in certain parts of Asia Minor, at least, in the second century AD and later: dice oracles. Here the authority of institutionalized belief and guilt-free randomness could be combined in difficult decision making!

Main entry gate at Termessos in Lycia; remains of a dice oracle are integrated into the end of the wall at left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

A “good” example (meaning I have pictures of its identifiable ruins) can be seen after a grueling climb up a barely-maintained trail to the mountaintop ruins of Termessos, on the far eastern edge of ancient Lycia in southern Turkey. There, just inside the main gate and attached to the inner face of the city wall, are the fallen blocks of a dice-oracle. One flat horizontal stone can be imagined as the surface on which the inquirer would throw the dice. The blocks on the wall above were covered with inscriptions giving the interpretation of each possible dice throw combination. In fact, the text at Termessos is quite similar to and consistent with those found at other dice-oracles in Asia Minor. In all cases, interpretations are given according to the total of the values of the sides from the dice thrown. From them, we can see that astragali were used because only the face values 1, 3, 4, and 6 were accounted for in the calculations. In most dice-oracles, five throws were assumed, but the Termessos gate example called for seven! The order did not matter but the exact method of obtaining the sum did, in cases where different combinations yielded the same number. Each specific outcome was listed with: the astragali face numbers, the sum of the throw, the result named for god or other mythological character, and a verse interpretation (not unlike a fortune cookie).[2]

A weary traveler enters the main gate at Termessos, approaching ruins of a dice oracle at center; the squared blocks were inscribed with formulae for interpreting the dice throws (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

The location of the Termessos dice-oracle at the city gate is not surprising, given that many of the interpretations assume questions relating to risks associated with business ventures or travel. Therein lies the connection with current events. This week I suspect many American state governors would welcome a chance to put tough decisions of business and travel versus safety on “the advice of the gods” or “Fate” rather than take his or her own reelection risk with the unknown future.

One of the now mostly-illegible blocks with inscribed formula for interpreting the dice throws; this oracle prescribed the throw of seven astralagi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

Would we be better off with a random decision than one made for political expediency? Who knows? Just out of curiosity, I “rolled the dice” in a simulation to see what advice I would get. The answer, straight from the dice-oracle interpretation texts, seems ominously appropriate for contemporary decisions:

  • 44466         24          Cronos the Child-Eater
  • Three fours and two sixes. This is the god’s advice:
  • Stay at home and go not elsewhere,
  • Lest the destructive Beast and avenging Fury come upon you;
  • For I see that the business is neither safe nor secure.[3]

Be safe out there.

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[1] Lev 16:8; Josh 18:6, 8, 10; 1 Chron 24:31, 25:8, 26:13-14; Neh 10:34, 11:1; Job 6:27; Ps 22:18; Joel 3:3; Ob 1:11; Jonah 1:7; Nah 3:10; Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24; Acts 1:26; and Greek Esther 9:24, 26; 10:10.

[2] Fritz Graf, “Rolling the Dice for an Answer,” in Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, eds S. I. Johnston and P. Struck (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 60-94.

[3] George E. Bean, Turkey’s Southern Shore (New York: Norton, 1979), 98-99.

Seeking Answers to an Unknown Future in the Distant Past

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,[1] 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.

Dodona: the sacred tree and house in the Fall (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-10-30)

“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).

Dodona: the sacred oak and house in the enclosure wall, viewed from behind the sanctuary (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-10-30)

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).

Dodona: a model of the extant ruins with the oracle indicated (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-11-03)

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.

Dodona: the sacred house (with oak), and the newer Temple of Dione in the foreground (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-21)

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.

Sheet of lead (525 – 500 BC) with a question posed by a visitor named Hermon, inscribed: “who is the god he should pray to in order to acquire useful descendants from his wife Kretaian” (© Acropolis Museum, Athens)

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.[2]

A lead tablet from Dodona (C. Carapanos, Dodone et ses ruines, Paris, 1878, pl. LX, 1).

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?[3]

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?[4]

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 . . .[5]

An Oracle for you, the reader:

STAY HOME. PUT UP WITH IT. (And read AncientDan)

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[1] OED, s.v. “pathos,” usage 4; viz. “Physical or mental suffering; sorrow” now “obsolete. rare.” (but I like it).

[2] H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 265.

[3] Esther Eidinow, Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105.

[4] Parke, 270 (no. 22); Eidinow, 81 (no. 27).  

[5] Eidinow, 81 (no. 28).


Go to the next installment in the series on Oracles