The oracles of Delphi and Dodona and their importance in Greece

The oracles of Delphi and Dodona and their importance in Greece

Can the Greeks hope for a better or worse near future? Will families be able to take vacations? These questions seem to be recurring problems in today's population due to the period of great social and economic instability they are experiencing, but not so recent.

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Greeks were also plagued with uncertainties and often wondered what they should do. To console yourself and seek enlightenment, they went with the priests or priestesses, the only ones who were capable of interpret the will of the Gods who knew everything.

Unlike today's fortune tellers, the ancients did not attempt to make specific predictions as to whether certain decisions were right or wrong, or whether the Gods would view certain actions favorably or unfavorably.

The way of guess the future in Ancient Greece took many forms, including reading the flight of birds, examining the livers of animals for sacrifice (or other internal organs), with colored stones or animal bones.

The Oracles of Ancient Greece: Delphi and Dodona

But on the other hand, highly ritualized practices existed, prophecies that were carried out in or next to ancient temples: the oracles. Among the gods associated with oracles and prophecies we have Apollo and Zeus, whose shrines of Delphi and Dodona They were well known not only in Greek lands, but throughout the Mediterranean, thanks to the strange abilities that priests and priestesses possessed to transmit divine declarations.

The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi

The archaeological site of Delphi It is today one of the most visited in Greece, and in that sense very little has changed since ancient times. Delphi, which began in the 8th century BC, was considered the most important center, the navel of the ancient world.

The authority and guidance of this oracular sanctuary of Apollo Pythius, was respected by Greeks and foreigners, and was used to clarify ethical and judicial principles, establish new cults, resolve political conflicts, military campaigns or simply solve common concerns derived from the uncertainties of humans.

Unlike the rites practiced in other Greek sanctuaries that remained the best kept secrets (such as the Mysteries of Eleusis), rituals and divine expressions of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi were topics discussed daily and even remain today thanks to the skillful pen numerous prominent writers, such as Pliny the Elder, Diodorus Siculus, Plato, Aeschylus, Cicero, Strabo or Plutarch.

The exact operation of the Oracle is not fully understood, but the authors agree on the existence of an abyss in the interior, on which the fortune teller was sitting inhaling the vapors that were released there, or taking the water from the source that was located there, in order to transmit the judgments, often ambiguous, determined by the god Apollo.

Plutarch, a native of Boeotia and well known for writing “Parallel lives”, A famous work where he recounted the lives of great Greek and Roman characters, offers a first-hand account of the Oracle of Delphi.

As a high-ranking priest who served for a long time in the shrine, Plutarch recorded all possible observations about the Pythoness when she was in a trance, and even the erratic behavior she used to see during sacred rituals.

The fascinating tale of PlutarchYet it offered only tantalizing clues as to the true operational nature of the Oracle, until a multidisciplinary team of 20th century specialists discovered tangible evidence that endowed the historical text with veracity, as well as the remarkable precision of the writer and biographer.

Plutarch observed a sweet perfume emanating from the sancta sanctorum of the temple of Apollo (Adyton), which he attributed to the vapors of the spring water that came out from under the foundations of the building.

These emissions were not strong enough in their day, but they were strong enough to place the Pythoness in a trance state, perhaps helped by the previous fast.

She listened to the questions of the visitors and gave her answers in a strangely altered voice, ending up visibly fatigued by all this.

Plutarch He relates that on one occasion, the priestess showed a spectacular reaction to the adverse effects of the conditions inside the Adyton, fell into hysteria, began to scream, and seizures came before ultimately collapsing and eventually dying.

Archaeologists began unearthing the ruins of Delphi in the 19th century, but no trace of a crack at its base was found that could have emitted gases.

For almost a century, specialists believed that ancient texts were wrong, until in the 1980s and 1990s, new geological discoveries began to unravel the mystery.

Archaeologist John Hale created a multidisciplinary team with a geologist, a chemist and a toxicologist, and with them he went to examine Delphi. The city was found to rest on limestone pavement, with two subterranean faults running directly below the Temple of Pole.

The periodic changes of these faults in ancient times probably created friction, which together with the heat, ended up releasing petrochemicals in the limestone that culminated in the form of steam.

The extraction of geological samples also revealed a natural source that went up to the temple, which was duly credited by Pausanias in the 2nd century.

Analysis of the water led to the discovery of ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas that in ancient times was prevalent in rising vapors.

Anesthesiologists experimented with ethylene in the second half of the 20th century, during which they found that it can induce a trance state. Larger doses can cause unconsciousness and inconsistencies or seizures were noted in some patients. Ethylene gas then seems to be the secret behind the behavior of the Pythoness.

In the last decade of the last century, the scientific discoveries of Hale and his collaborators have revolutionized the understanding of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, reaffirming the credibility of the old observers, like Plutarco.

The Oracle of Zeus at Dodona

Also highly respected in ancient times and by historical sources, perhaps more reputable than Delphi, we have in Eye Shrine of Zeus in Dodona, nestled among the magnificent mountains southwest of Ioannina.

The characters of Homer, Achilles and Ulysses, They refer to Dodona and archaeologists have traced the founding of the site back to the Mycenaean era in the second millennium BC. In the case of this temple, Zeus appears to have inherited a shrine previously consecrated to Gaea, the goddess of Mother Earth..

The reading of the signs and the answers to the questions of the pilgrims followed the rituals of Dodona, where Zeus and before Gea, were worshiped in the open air around the sacred oak.

The remains of a stone and bronze altar and the iron tripods bear much testimony about the tradition of the priests of Zeus, the Selli, which interpreted the will of the reverberating sounds of the metal cauldrons arranged in a continuous circle around the base of the oak.

The omens were also interpreted from the whispering of the leaves of the sacred oak and the flights of the doves that inhabited its branches. From the first half of the 4th century BC, the sanctuary of Zeus turned into a stone monument.

A small temple was built next to the oak tree and a wall surrounded the complex, crossed by an ornamental walkway.

The Oracles of Delphi and Dodona continued to function until the fourth century, when the growing popularity of Christianity eventually led to the closure of the Apollo and the felling and uprooting of the sacred oak of Zeus at Dodona.

Notes from Homer

The Iliad, canto 16 (233):

Sovereign Zeus, Dodoneo, Pelasgic, who lives far away and reigns in Dodona, cold winter, where the Selos dwell, your interpreters, who do not wash their feet and sleep on the ground! You heard my words when I invoked you, and to honor me you oppressed the Achaean people hard. Well now, fulfill this vow for me: I remain in the shipyard and command my companion to fight with many myrmidons: make victory follow him, longsighted Zeus, and instill courage in his heart so that Hector will see if my squire he knows how to fight alone, or if his undefeated hands only move furiously when he goes to the martial fight with me. And when you have removed the screaming and fighting from the bass, return unscathed with all your weapons and with your comrades who are fighting closely.

The Odyssey, canto 19 (296):

He also told me that Odysseus had gone to Dodona to listen to the will of Zeus, the one who speaks from the divine high-crowned oak, to find out whether he should return clearly or secretly to his homeland, after so many years of absence. So he is safe and will come very soon, no longer remaining far from his family and from his homeland.

Images: Zeus Temple: PavleMarjanovic Apollo Temple: Konstantin Kopachinsky in Stock Photos / Shutterstock

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Video: Discovery Tour: Ancient Greece The Oracle of Delphi