Oracles/Sibyls

(700 B.C. - A.D. 300)

The oracles of Greece and the sibyls of Rome were women chosen by the gods through which divine advice would be spoken through them. They were popular throughout the great empires and pilgrims would make their way from far off places just to ask them a question and receive the answer of a god. Although many accounts show that their prophecies were true, this is a bit skewed. They were not infallible and many texts refused to mention the errors that the oracles and sibyls made. They were not perfect and gave false information on occasions, but they were still a central part of the Greek and Roman religions.

The most famous of the oracles was the oracle of Apollo, the god of the sun, at Delphi. She was named Pythia. Travelers would ask her questions, many quite personal, such as those dealing with love and marriage, and she would go into a sort of trance and spew out rhymes and riddles for the traveler to ponder. These riddles were supposedly the words of Apollo himself. She would also receive prophecies from dreams. Science has revealed that a possibility for the trances that Pythia would enter was caused by inhalation of large amounts of carbon dioxide, which would produce hallucinations. The release of the large amounts of carbon dioxide was due to volcanic faults that ran underneath the temple at Delphi.

One of the oldest oracles in Greece was the oracle of Zeus in Dodona, which was located in northern Greece.  Priestesses, called the Peleiades, would translate the oracle sent by Zeus. They listened to the sounds of pots hanging in the trees, the sounds of the wind, and other sounds of nature. They would then translate these noises into a prophecy from Zeus. They believed that Zeus' voice could be heard through the wind. Plato mentioned an account that he had with the Peleiades in his speech, Phaedrus. Herodotus also has mentioned accounts with these priestesses.

Epidaurus was the site of an oracle of Asclepios, the son of Apollo. The oracle was a man named Aelius Aristides. Pilgrims would go to him to ask questions that dealt with medicine, disease, and healing. He was said to give medical advice, and many of the pilgrims hoped to be cured miraculously. Aelius also made prophecies based on his dreams, much like Pythia at Delphi. Rituals were performed before the travelers received an answer or cure from Asclepios. These rituals included some sort of sacrifice, and abstinence and fasting. Those awaiting miracles were recorded to have gone into a hallucinogenic trance during their slumber. This was supposedly the sign that a miraculous healing was taking place.

The oracles were constantly turned to in times of crises. These ranging from medical epidemics and plagues, to wars and invasions. The Delphic oracle was mostly consulted with such issues as these. She told leaders to invade certain areas on many occasions, usually Roman cities or provinces. They did as they were told, although she was not correct every time. The army also turned to Pythia during the wars with Persia. She had predicted defeat for the Greek army. This prophecy was incorrect, because the Greeks defeated the Persians. The influence of the oracles began to wane, although not completely obsolete until the fourth century AD.

The sibyls were the Roman equivalents of the Greek oracles. The origin is a prophetess named Sibyl, who like the oracle at Delphi, spoke the words of Apollo by going into a trance. The tradition went on, and women were chosen by the gods to become sibyls. The most famous was the sibyl of Cumae, who wrote nine books of prophecy called the Oracula Sibyllina. These books ultimately predicted the fall of the Roman Empire.

The oracles and the sibyls were very controversial figures in Greek and Roman religions, because on many occasions their predictions and prophecies were not correct, and they were proven fallible. Even so, they remained to be significant in the religions and beliefs of those of some of the greatest civilizations in the world. The question of whether their riddles and predictions were of divine origin or substance-induced hallucinations will remain a mystery for now.


Annotated Bibliography

Archaeonia. Ancient Greek Oracles. No date. <http://www.archaeonia.com/religion/oracles.htm>(18 December 2005). 
This was a great website. It not only supplied interesting information on the oracles, but on other aspects of Greek religion, such as the cosmogony, the gods, rituals, and cults. The website also contains information of Greek philosophy, art, sports, history, and lifestyle. The website was easy to read and the purpose was to educate. This site is highly recommended for research.

Aset, Sabrina. Pagan Gods and Goddess of the Dodona Oracle. 1997. <http://www.goddess.org/vortices/notes/dodona.html>(18 December 2005). 
The site offered good information. It contained the methods of divination used by the priestesses and also some primary sources of prophecies made by them. This site was also not difficult understand.

Boardman, John, Griffin, Jasper, and Murray, Oswyn., eds. The Oxford History of the Greek and Hellenistic World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 
 The source did not have much information dealing with the oracles. The only information relevant were the basic purposes of the oracles. The book contains mostly information on politics and militaristic issues. The book could be used for someone on a secondary educational level. Is a good book if looking for basic information on the Ancient Greek empire.

Boardman, John, Griffin, Jasper, and Murray, Oswyn., eds. The Oxford History of the Roman World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 
The only information about the sibyls in this book was an excerpt from the Sibylline Books. The rest of the book was just basic information such as political, military, and economic aspects of the Roman empire. Nice resource if just doing research on Rome in general.

Cartledge, Paul, ed. Cambridge Illustrated History: Ancient Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
This was a decent source. It offered some information on the oracles, such as the beliefs and fallibility of them. This also offered a lot of general information on many facets of Greek society, such as theatre and the arts, politics, philosophy, and so on. This is good starting point for research.

Easterling, P.E., and Muir, J.V., eds. Greek Religion and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.  
There was not much information on the oracles in this book surprisingly. The information that was available discussed the involvement of the Pythia in military issues such as the Persian War. This is not the best book to use when researching the oracles, but good if doing research on mythology or the Greek pantheon. Also this book was not easy to read.

Flaceliere, Robert. Greek Oracles. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1965.  
This was a great source. It discussed in detail the different oracles of Greece and their functions. The book also went into detail on the political and philosophical issues facing the oracles and their followers. The book was somewhat easy to read, but great for research on this topic.

Freeman, Charles. Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.   
The source was not very helpful on the topic of oracles and sibyls, but it contains a lot of information on political and economic issues of these great empires. It also discusses other civilizations such as Assyria, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. This book is good when looking for political or economic information. This book is not meant for anyone below a college level.

Hale, John R., a da Boer, Jellezeiling, Chanton, Jeffrey P., and Spiller, Henry A. Questioning the Delphic Oracle. Scientific American. August 2003.  
This source dealt with the scientific explanations of the Pythia's trance like states. The information was interesting and useful. This is a difficult read for those not familiar with scientific terms and principles. Good source for research on the Delphic oracle.

Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Time. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.   
The source does not contain much information on the oracles. It discusses more political or social issues, and does not focus on too much religion. Good if doing research on the politics, or Greece in general. This book was very easy to read.

Ozmore Design Group. Oracles. No Date. <http://www.ozmore.com/greek/oracles.html> (18 December 2005). 
This site offered some decent information on the Greek oracles, mainly discussing the different types of oracles and where they were located. This site also mentioned the different methods of divination used by the oracles and the Greeks in general. This site was easy to read and highly recommended.

Parke, H.W. The Oracles of Zeus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.   
This book contained some great information on the oracle at Dodona. It also looks at the different sources about this oracle, and the accounts made by famous philosophers and historians. Great book to use when doing research on this topic. The book was not very difficult to read.


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URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/ancoracles.html
Original written by Alexandra L. George, November 2005
Last Revision: 18 December 2005
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