Oracles in Delphi, Trophinos and Siwa

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20120219-Oracle of Delphi Omphallos, naval of teh world.jpg
Naval of the world
The Oracle at Delphi was a woman. She was required to be a virgin over the age of 50 but dressed as a maiden. When she performed her prophecies, she drank from a sacred spring, enveloped by vapors, and then returned to a basement in the temple, where she sat on a three-legged stool and chewed sacred laurel leaves. She received her messages from a mythical snake and chanted in a language that was interpreted by a priest and believed to be the words of the god Apollo.

The oracles had a reputation for saying what their customers wanted to hear. The scholar Michael Grants wrote that he Oracle's prophecies were conservative and flexible. "Some have...preferred to ascribe the entire phenomenon to clever stage management, aided by an effective information system," he said. .Xenophobe reportedly ignored the advice of the Oracle of Delphi and took his troops deep into Persian territory, where they were trapped and massacred.

James Romm wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Delphic priests themselves were among history's savviest salesmen. They happily took cash in exchange for favorable prophecies. Lacking an army, they spread legends suggesting that the gods would bring disaster on any who raided their shrine. The tactic worked — until it didn't. Much of Delphi's treasure ended up coined to hire soldiers, after a neighboring city-state seized the site in the 4th century B.C. . [Source: James Romm, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2012. Romm is a professor of classics at Bard College and author of "Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire."]

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History


20120219-Oracle of Delphi Tanglewood_Tales_(1921).png Delphi of Oedipus Rex fame was a real place where people went to have their fortunes told during a sacred ceremony.

The temple of Delphi, where the oracle did her magic, was located about 120 miles from Athens on the slope of 2000-foot-high Mt. Parnassus at a place described as the navel of the Earth and the place where the gods descended to earth. Delphi is believed to have been a sacred spot as far back as 1500 B.C. and taken over by the Greeks around 1000 B.C. According to legend, Delphi was originally an oracle of an earth-mother goddess. It was later taken over by Apollo after he slew a she-dragon, named Python, who lived in a cave on Mt. Parnassus.

Alexander the Great and other leaders and influential people came from all over the Mediterranean, including Egypt, to Delphi for advice on politics. Slaves came to find out how they could please their masters. Parents inquired how they could cure their sons of love sickness and husbands wanted to find who was the father of their children.

Delphi became so popular that a large number of lodging houses and new houses opened up. The oracle was showered with gifts of silver and gold and became quite a wealthy woman. She stayed in business from 700 B.C. to 300 A.D. Delphi stopped functioning around the time of Rome became Christianized. Nero reportedly carted 500 statues from the site. It was officially shut down by Emperor Theodosius (379-95). Delphi was originally an oracle of an earth-mother goddess that was later taken over by Apollo. Alexander the Great and other leaders came for advice on politics. Slaves came to find out how they could please their masters. Parents inquired how they could cure their sons of love sickness and husbands wanted to find who was the father of their children.

Delphi Archaeological Site

Oracle of Delphi

The Delphi ruins are beautifully situated on the southern flank of Mt. Parnassos which also offers panoramic views of the valleys below. The center of the sanctuary where the ceremonies were held is dominated by the Temple of Apollo which is composed of a platform with several columns sticking up from it. Next to the temple is fountain of water where the oracle would wash her hands before she touched the "sacred stone." Leading to the temple is the "sacred way" which used to be lined with treasurers, offerings and arcades. Northwest of the temple is the 5000-seat theater where ancient Delphic drama festivals were held every four years and up a hill from there is the stadium where the Pythian games were held which included competitions among philosophers as well as sporting events.

According to UNESCO: “The pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Delphi, where the oracle of Apollo spoke, was the site of the omphalos, the 'navel of the world'. Blending harmoniously with the superb landscape and charged with sacred meaning, Delphi in the 6th century B.C. was indeed the religious centre and symbol of unity of the ancient Greek world. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“Delphi lies between two towering rocks of Mt. Parnassus, known as the Phaidriades (Shining) Rocks, in the Regional unit of Phocis in Central Greece. Here lies the Pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Apollo, the Olympian god of light, knowledge and harmony. The area was inhabited in the 2nd millennium B.C. as is evident from Mycenaean remains (1500-1100 B.C.). The development of the sanctuary and oracle began in the 8th century B.C. and their religious and political influence over the whole of Greece increased in the 6th century B.C. . At the same time, their fame and prestige spread throughout the whole of the then known world, from which pilgrims came to the site to receive an oracle from the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo. =

Oracle of Delphi entranced

“A place with a rich intangible heritage, Delphi was the centre of the world (omphalos) in the eyes of the ancient Greeks: according to myth, it was the meeting point of two eagles released by Zeus, one to the East and one in the West. The magnificent monumental complex is a human-made environment in perfect harmony with the rare natural environment, the principal features of which gave rise to the organisation of the cults. This harmonious relationship, which has remained undisturbed from ancient times to the present day, makes Delphi a unique monument and a priceless legacy bequeathed by the ancient Greek world to following generations. =

“The layout of Delphi is a unique artistic achievement. Mt. Parnassus is a veritable masterpiece and is where a series of monuments were built whose modular elements – terraces, temples, treasuries, etc. – combine to form a strong expression of the physical and moral values of a site which may be described as magical. Delphi had an immense impact throughout the ancient world, as can be ascertained by the various offerings of kings, dynasts, city-states and historical figures, who deemed that sending a valuable gift to the sanctuary, would ensure the favour of the god. The Sanctuary at Delphi, the object of great generosity and the crossroads of a wide variety of influences, was in turn imitated throughout the ancient world. Its influence extended as far as Bactria, following the conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great. Even pillaging of the Sanctuary by the emperor Nero and by Constantine the Great, who transported spoils from it to Rome and Constantinople, added to the artistic influence of Delphi. =

“Delphi bears a unique testimony to the religion and civilization of ancient Greece. At the legendary site where Apollo slew the serpent Python, celestial cults replaced chthonian cults and introduced the old heritage of myths originating from primitive times. The Delphic oracle, over which four sacred wars were fought, is one of the focal points of Greek political history, while the Theatre and the Stadium, where the Pythian Games took place every four years, were places of community celebrations reflecting triumphant Hellenism. According to the ancients, the Temple of Apollo was where the Omphalos was located, that is, the navel of the universe, the centre of the earth. Delphi is consequently directly and tangibly associated with a belief of manifest universal significance. =

Ritual at the Oracle of Delphi

20120219-Oracle of DelphiOrphe_oracles.gif The ritual with the oracle of Delphi took place once a month. The oracle was bathed and purified at the nearby Casralia spring and was dressed in a long, elaborately-decorated robe and a laurel crown. The seers usually took written questions and gave yes or no answers. Two surviving lead tablets with the question remain. One is by Heracleidas who asked if his wife would give him children. The other by Cleotas asked if sheep raising was a good business to get into.

The ceremony began when the oracle, known as the Priestess of Apollo and the title Pythia, touched the egg-shaped “ omphalos” ("sacred stone") which was considered the center of the world. After touching the stone she swallowed some laurel leaves and inhaled vapors from a chasm which caused her to go into a state of ecstacy.

While in this state she uttered incoherent words that a priest composed the into verses. These verses in turn were deciphered by interpreters, revealing the fortune. Whoever wished to consult the oracle had to offer a bull, a goat or a wild boar as a sacrifice. In the 5th century the oracle and the sacred stone were considered so valuable kingdoms fought wars over them.

Vapors at the Oracle of Delphi

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Oracle of Delphi Treasury
The vapors that drove the oracle into a state of ecstacy were believed to be produced by the eternal decomposing of the flesh of Python. The first oracles were shepherd that lived in the area and inhaled the vapors and entered ecstatic states only to die afterwards. Later it was the decided that only special priestesses would be allowed to inhale the vapors.

The source of the vapors and what they were has been a point of research and contention among historians. Plutarch described a spring that emitted “fragrance and breeze” into the Oracle’s temple, prompting the trances. Thorough searches in 19th and 20th century were unable to locate any springs like that in the Delphi area.

Research by John Hale, an archaeology graduate student at Cambridge, and Jelle de Boer, a Wesleyan University geologist mapped the area and found that two major faults intersected beneath the Oracle’s grounds and theorized that limestone deposits below the grounds released gases — specifically methane, ethane and ethylene — into the air. Ethylene in particular caught their interest because it has a sweet smell and can “induce a trance” in low doses, producing an “anesthetic state twice as fast as nitrous oxide.” Analysis of the spring water did find the presence of ethylene in the water, supporting the claim. Further research by Italian scientists led them to conclude that methane-induced oxygen deprivation was the trigger of the trances.

Oracle Inscriptions

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priestess of Delphi by Collier
Oracular Inscriptions:
1. Shall I receive the allowance?
2. Shall I remain where I am going?
3. Am I to be sold?
4. Am I to obtain benefit from my friend?
5. Has it been granted me to make a contract with another person?
6. Am I to be reconciled with my children?
7. Am I to get a furlough?
8. Shall I get the money?
9. Is my lover who is away from home alive?

  1. Am I to profit by the transaction?
    11. Is my property to be put up at auction?
    12. Shall I find a means of selling?
    13. Am I able to carry off what I have in mind?
    14. Am I to become a beggar?
    15. Shall I become a fugitive?
    16. Shall I be appointed as an ambassador?
    17. Am I to become a senator?
    18. Is my flight to be stopped?
    19. Am I to be divorced from my wife?
    20.Have I been poisoned?

Delphic Hymn to Apollo

This hymn to Apollo, god both of the Delphic Oracle and of music, was found inscribed on a stone at Delphi. The text is marked with a form of music notation which makes it one of the earliest pieces of music to have survived in the western world. We have no way of determining exactly how the piece would have been performed, but recordings have been made which may convey something of the sound of the work. One version is available on the album “Music of Ancient Greece,” Orata ORANGM 2013 (track 3), and another on “Musique de la Grèce Antique” Harmonia Mundi (France) HMA 1901015 (track 24). Here is a translation of the first part of the Paean.

Oh, come now, Muses, (1)
and go to the craggy sacred place
upon the far-seen, twin-peaked Parnassus, (2)
celebrated and dear to us, Pierian maidens. (3)
Repose on the snow-clad mountain top;
celebrate the Pythian Lord (4)
with the goldensword, Phoebus,
whom Leto bore unassisted (5)
on the Delian rock (6) surrounded by silvery olives,
the luxuriant plant
which the Goddess Pallas (7)
long ago brought forth. [Source: translated by Richard Hooker]

Notes: (1) The muses were the goddesses of the arts, the word “music” comes from their name. (2) Mount Parnassus was the site of the temple of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the most sacred spot in Greece. (3) The muses were also associated with a place called Pieria near Mount Olympus; but another explanation of the reference is that they were said to be the nine daughters of one Pierus. (4) Apollo. His priestess was called the Pythia, after a legendary snake that Apollo had killed in laying claim to the shrine. (5) There are many different accounts of how Apollo’s mother wandered the earth looking for a safe place in which to bear her child. (6) The island of Delos. (7) Athena. Note how the Athenian poet, even while praising the chief god of Delphi manages to bring in by a loose association the chief goddess of Athens.

Oracle of Delphi Temple of Apollo

Oracle of Trophinos at Lebadeia

There were other seers and oracles. The one in Aegira drank bull's blood before predicting the future. The one in Argos drank lamb blood. Seers also looked for omens in the way birds flew, spiders walked and chickens pecked. Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” 9. 23 - 40 (A.D. 160): “On the side towards the mountains the boundary of Orchomenus is Phocis, but on the plain it is Lebadeia. Originally this city stood on high ground, and was called Mideia after the mother of Aspledon. But when Lebadus came to it from Athens, the inhabitants went down to the low ground, and the city was named Lebadeia after him. Who was the father of Lebadus, and why he came, they do not know; they know only that the wife of Lebadus was Laonice. The city is no less adorned than the most prosperous of the Greek cities, and it is separated from the grove of Trophonius by the river Hercyna. They say that here Hercyna, when playing with the Maid, the daughter of Demeter, held a goose which against her will she let loose. The bird flew into a hollow cave and hid under a stone; the Maid entered and took the bird as it lay under the stone. The water flowed, they say, from the place where the Maid took up the stone, and hence the river received the name of Hercyna. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

On the bank of the river there is a temple of Hercyna, in which is a maiden holding a goose in her arms. In the cave are the sources of the river and images standing, and serpents are coiled around their scepters. One might conjecture the images to be of Asclepius and Health, but they might be Trophonius and Hercyna, because they think that serpents are just as much sacred to Trophonius as to Asclepius. By the side of the river is the tomb of Arcesilaus, whose bones, they say, were carried back from Troy by Leitus. The most famous things in the grove are a temple and image of Trophonius; the image, made by Praxiteles, is after the likeness of Asclepius. There is also a sanctuary of Demeter surnamed Europa, and a Zeus Rain-god in the open. If you go up to the oracle, and thence onwards up the mountain, you come to what is called the Maid's Hunting and a temple of King Zeus. This temple they have left half finished, either because of its size or because of the long succession of the wars. In a second temple are images of Cronus, Hera and Zeus. There is also a sanctuary of Apollo...

This oracle was once unknown to the Boeotians, but they learned of it in the following way. As there had been no rain for a year and more, they sent to Delphi envoys from each city. These asked for a cure for the drought, and were bidden by the Pythian priestess to go to Trophonius at Lebadeia and to discover the remedy from him. Coming to Lebadeia they could not find the oracle. Thereupon Saon, one of the envoys from the city Acraephnium and the oldest of all the envoys, saw a swarm of bees. It occurred to him to follow himself wheresoever the bees turned. At once he saw the bees flying into the ground here, and he went with them into the oracle. It is said that Trophonius taught this Saon the customary ritual, and all the observances kept at the oracle.”

Oracle of Trophinos in Action

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” 9. 23 - 40 (A.D. 160): “ What happens at the oracle is as follows. When a man has made up his mind to descend to the oracle of Trophonius, he first lodges in a certain building for an appointed number of days, this being sacred to the good Spirit and to good Fortune. While he lodges there, among other regulations for purity he abstains from hot baths, bathing only in the river Hercyna. Meat he has in plenty from the sacrifices, for he who descends sacrifices to Trophonius himself and to the children of Trophonius, to Apollo also and Cronus, to Zeus surnamed King, to Hera Charioteer, and to Demeter whom they surname Europa and say was the nurse of Trophonius. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

Oracle of Delphi Sanctuary

“At each sacrifice a diviner is present, who looks into the entrails of the victim, and after an inspection prophesies to the person descending whether Trophonius will give him a kind and gracious reception. The entrails of the other victims do not declare the mind of Trophonius so much as a ram, which each inquirer sacrifices over a pit on the night he descends, calling upon Agamedes. Even though the previous sacrifices have appeared propitious, no account is taken of them unless the entrails of this ram indicate the same; but if they agree, then the inquirer descends in good hope. The procedure of the descent is this.

“First, during the night he is taken to the river Hercyna by two boys of the citizens about thirteen years old, named Hermae, who after taking him there anoint him with oil and wash him. It is these who wash the descender, and do all the other necessary services as his attendant boys. After this he is taken by the priests, not at once to the oracle, but to fountains of water very near to each other. Here he must drink water called the water of Forgetfulness, that he may forget all that he has been thinking of hitherto, and afterwards he drinks of another water, the water of Memory, which causes him to remember what he sees after his descent. After looking at the image which they say was made by Daedalus (it is not shown by the priests save to such as are going to visit Trophonius), having seen it, worshipped it and prayed, he proceeds to the oracle, dressed in a linen tunic, with ribbons girding it, and wearing the boots of the country.

“The oracle is on the mountain, beyond the grove. Round it is a circular basement of white marble, the circumference of which is about that of the smallest threshing floor, while its height is just short of two cubits. On the basement stand spikes, which, like the cross-bars holding them together, are of bronze, while through them has been made a double door. Within the enclosure is a chasm in the earth, not natural, but artificially constructed after the most accurate masonry. The shape of this structure is like that of a bread-oven. Its breadth across the middle one might conjecture to be about four cubits, and its depth also could not be estimated to extend to more than eight cubits. They have made no way of descent to the bottom, but when a man comes to Trophonius, they bring him a narrow, light ladder. After going down he finds a hole between the floor and the structure. Its breadth appeared to be two spans, and its height one span.

The descender lies with his back on the ground, holding barley-cakes kneaded with honey, thrusts his feet into the hole and himself follows, trying hard to get his knees into the hole. After his knees the rest of his body is at once swiftly drawn in, just as the largest and most rapid river will catch a man in its eddy and carry him under. After this those who have entered the shrine learn the future, not in one and the same way in all cases, but by sight sometimes and at other times by hearing. The return upwards is by the same mouth, the feet darting out first. They say that no one who has made the descent has been killed, save only one of the bodyguard of Demetrius. But they declare that he performed none of the usual rites in the sanctuary, and that he descended, not to consult the god but in the hope of stealing gold and silver from the shrine. It is said that the body of this man appeared in a different place, and was not cast out at the sacred mouth. Other tales are told about the fellow, but I have given the one most worthy of consideration.

“After his ascent from Trophonius the inquirer is again taken in hand by the priests, who set him upon a chair called the chair of Memory, which stands not far from the shrine, and they ask of him, when seated there, all he has seen or learned. After gaining this information they then entrust him to his relatives. These lift him, paralyzed with terror and unconscious both of himself and of his surroundings, and carry him to the building where he lodged before with Good Fortune and the Good Spirit. Afterwards, however, he will recover all his faculties, and the power to laugh will return to him. What I write is not hearsay; I have myself inquired of Trophonius and seen other inquirers. Those who have descended into the shrine of Trophonius are obliged to dedicate a tablet on which is written all that each has heard or seen. The shield also of Aristomenes is still preserved here. Its story I have already given in a former part of my work.”

Oracles in Ancient Egypt

Oracle Temple in Siwa, Egypt

Karnak in Thebes (present-day Luxor is regarded by some scholars as the first oracle center. Its name translates as “'The most perfect of places.” It was said that that all other oracles originated from Karnark and they communicated with one another by using of “homing' doves” that enabled them to “see into the future.” An Omphalus (religious stone artifact) excavated in the sanctuary of the Great Temple of Amon at Karna, by G. A. Reisner supports the Greek traditions of doves flying between Delphi and Karnak. [Source: Ancient Wisdom*/]

Two ancient Egyptian texts interpreted as providing evidence of oracles in Karnak read: ‘Ye people from south and north, all ye eyes that see the sun, all ye who come from south and north to Thebes to entreat the lord of gods, come to me! What ye say I shall pass to Amun at Karnak. Say the "offering spell" to me and give me water from that which ye possess. For I am the messenger whom the king has appointed to hear your words of petition and to send up to him the affairs of the Two Lands.’ /*/

And “Ye people of Karnak, ye who wish to see Amun, come to me! I shall report your petitions. For I am indeed the messenger of this god. The king has appointed me to report the words of the Two Lands. Speak to me the "offering spell" and invoke my name daily, as is done to one who has taken a vow.’ /*/

Siwa Oasis in present-day Libya was specifically mentioned in relation to Karnak and Dodona by Herodotus. Alexander the Great went out of his way to consult the Oracle of Amun in 331 B.C. before his conquest of Persia. The King of Persia led an army of 50,000 to destroy the oracle that resulted in the entire army being lost to the desert. /*/

Oracles in Ancient Greek-Egyptian Law Courts

Oracles were introduced to Egyptian law courts in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.) Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Oracle proceedings used the same system as other oracles: the answer of the god was derived from the movements his cult statue made during a festive procession. A forward motion, called hnn, “nodding,” was considered as affirmative answer, a backward motion, called naj n HA=f, “receding,” as negative. Oracular proceedings are best attested from Deir el-Medina. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

Alexander the Great called the son of Jupiter-Ammon by the priest at Siwa

“The procedure for oracular trials resembled normal procedure inasmuch as the plaintiff gave his statement, sometimes probably in writing, including the presentation of documents. Oracles were approached for mainly the same types of suits as local courts. But the presence of the defendant seems not to have been necessary, especially since oracular procedures were quite common in cases of theft when the culprit was unknown. Three basic methods to address the god can be distinguished: 1. oral yes/no questions like “Is A’s claim correct?” or “Is B the culprit?” which the god answered with “yes” or “no” movements; 2. orally presented lists of possibilities (e.g., of possible thieves or prices for disputed goods) during the reading of which the god gave his assent at a certain point; 3. double written statements (positive and negative versions of a statement or the statements of plaintiff and defendant) between which the god chose, possibly by moving towards one of them. Like normal court sessions, oracle sessions were recorded.

“In the transcripts, the participants and onlookers were put down as witnesses for the judgment. The movement was usually translated directly into the standard judgment formula (see above), e.g., “X is right, Y is wrong.” The condemned was able to appeal at another god’s oracle. It remains unclear whether oracular trials took place on days when there were religious processions anyway or whether special processions had to be arranged for them: the fact that in Deir el-Medina most oracle trials are dated to the 10th, 20th, and 30th day of the month when the workers had their day off cuts both ways. During the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, when Amun became nominally head of the Upper Egyptian state, oracles also took over the notarial functions of courts, i.e., the authentication of documents.”

“The evidence for oracular proceedings in the Late Period is sparse and indirect. A lavishly illustrated transcript of an oracular proceeding of the 26th Dynasty with an exceptionally large number of witness copies concerns the transfer of a priest from one priesthood to another and is therefore more administrative than judicial in nature. Herodotos II, 174 reports that king Amasis of the 26th Dynasty had repeatedly been acquitted from quite legitimate accusations of theft in his youth by the oracles of some gods but condemned by others, with the effect that, as king, he esteemed only the latter and did not take the first seriously any more. There is no evidence for real oracular proceedings after the 26th Dynasty—what Seidl supposes to be writs in an oracular trial are letters to gods containing prayers for protection against injustice. Although oracle questions with legal content, usually concerning cases of fraud or theft with unknown perpetrator, are still to be found in the Roman Period and, in Christianized form, continue into the seventh century CE, these are no longer part of a proper trial.”

Siwa Oracle

Alexander consulting the Oracle of Apollo

Alexander the Great traveled by camel to get to the Siwa in present-day Libya to visit the oracle at the temple of Amun. "Amun was a god of prophecy," wrote adventurer and journalist Mark Asher in the Washington Post. "So valued was the presence of the Siwan oracle that Athens — a major power of that day — kept a special galley on permanent standby to take their messengers across the seas.”

"The Athenian general Cimon, laying siege to Cyprus in 445 B.C., sent a delegation here, to whom the oracle accurately predicted the general's own death. Cleopatra, torn by her love affair with Antony sought advise here; so did Hannibal of Carthage, and the Spartan general Lysander. Herodotus, the Greek historian, arrived here in the 5th century B.C., and immortalized the tale of the mad Persian King Cambyses II, whose vast army was swallowed up by the Sea of Sand. The oracle predicted the victory of the athlete Eubtasi the 93rd Olympiad, and so assured was Eubotas of the laurels that he ordered a victor's statue of himself before the event...Alexander the Great — broke off from his campaign against the Persian King Darius to find out from oracle whether he was truly the son or a god."

"The oracle was not a man, but a shapeless peduncle of plaster, probably representing a human shrouded for burial in the upright manner favored by the ancient Libyans. Before the consultation, a throng of priests would parade through the palmeraries in a silver bark, followed by a procession of maidens whose pious hymns were intended to induce a favorable prophecy. the petitioner would then be drawn into the secret recesses of the temple, where the god's deliberations were relayed to him by the priests. We shall never know precisely what was revealed to Alexander, though it is recorded that the chief priest addressed him as "Son of Zeus."

Alexander the Great Seeks the Oracle at the Temple of Ammon in Siwa

In 331 B.C., Alexander the Great trekked 300 miles across the Sahara desert for no military reason to Siwa Oasis (near Libyan border), where he met with the oracle at the Zeus-Amum temple and asked questions about his future and divinity. The oracle greeted Alexander as the son of Amun-Re and gave him the favorable omens he wanted for an invasion of Asia. The 24-year-old Alexander arrived at Siwa by camel. He asked the oracle whether was the son of Zeus. He never revealed the answer to that question.

Arrian wrote: “After these transactions, Alexander was seized by an ardent desire to visit Ammon in Libya, partly in order to consult the god, because the oracle of Ammon was said to be exact in its information, and Perseus and Heracles were said to have consulted it, the former when he was despatched by Polydectes against the Gorgons, and the latter, when he visited Antaeus in Libya and Busiris in Egypt. Alexander was also partly urged by a desire of emulating Perseus and Heracles, from both of whom he traced his descent. He also deduced his pedigree from Ammon, just as the legends traced that of Heracles and Perseus to Zeus. Accordingly he made the expedition to Ammon with the design of learning his own origin more certainly, or at least that he might be able to say that he had learned it. According to Aristobulus, he advanced along the seashore to Paraetonium through a country which was a desert, but not destitute of water, a distance of about , stades. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

Alexander kneeling before the high priest of Ammon

“Thence he turned into the interior, where the oracle of Ammon was located. The route is desert, and most of it is sand and destitute of water. But there was a copious supply of rain for Alexander, a thing which was attributed to the influence of the deity; as was also the following occurrence. Whenever a south wind blows in that district, it heaps up the sand upon the route far and wide, rendering the tracks of the road invisible, so that it is impossible to discover where one ought to direct one’s course in the sand, just as if one were at sea; for there are no landmarks along the road, neither mountain anywhere, nor tree, nor permanent hill standing erect, by which travellers might be able to form a conjecture of the right course, as sailors do by the stars. Consequently, Alexander’s army lost the way, and even the guides were in doubt about the course to take. Ptolemy, son of Lagus, says that two serpents went in front of the army, uttering a voice, and Alexander ordered the guides to follow them, trusting in the divine portent. He says too that they showed the way to the oracle and back again. But Aristobulus, whose account is generally admitted as correct, says that two ravens flew in front of the army, and that these acted as Alexander’s guides. I am able to assert with confidence that some divine assistance was afforded him, for probability also coincides with the supposition; but the discrepancies in the details of the various narratives have deprived the story of certainty.”

Plutarch wrote: “This was a long and painful, and, in two respects, a dangerous journey; first, if they should lose their provision of water, as for several days none could be obtained; and, secondly, if a violent south wind should rise upon them, while they were travelling through the wide extent of deep sands, as it is said to have done when Cambyses led his army that way, blowing the sand together in heaps, and raising, as it were, the whole desert like a sea upon them, till fifty thousand were swallowed up and destroyed by it. All these difficulties were weighed and represented to him; but Alexander was not easily to be diverted from anything he was bent upon. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“For fortune having hitherto seconded him in his designs, made him resolute and firm in his opinions, and the boldness of his temper raised a sort of passion in him for surmounting difficulties; as if it were not enough to be always victorious in the field, unless places and seasons and nature herself submitted to him. In this journey, the relief and assistance the gods afforded him in his distresses were more remarkable, and obtained greater belief than the oracles he received afterwards, which, however, were valued and credited the more on account of those occurrences. For first, plentiful rains that fell preserved them from any fear of perishing by drought, and, allaying the extreme dryness of the sand, which now became moist and firm to travel on, cleared and purified the air. Besides this, when they were out of their way, and were wandering up and down, because the marks which were wont to direct the guides were disordered and lost, they were set right again by some ravens, which flew before them when on their march, and waited for them when they lingered and fell behind; and the greatest miracle, as Callisthenes tells us, was that if any of the company went astray in the night, they never ceased croaking and making a noise till by that means they had brought them into the right way again.

Advice of Ammon Oracle to Alexander the Great

Plutarch wrote: “Having passed through the wilderness, they came to the place where the high priest, at the first salutation, bade Alexander welcome from his father Ammon. And being asked by him whether any of his father's murderers had escaped punishment, he charged him to speak with more respect, since his was not a mortal father. Then Alexander, changing his expression, desired to know of him if any of those who murdered Philip were yet unpunished, and further concerning dominion, whether the empire of the world was reserved for him? This, the god answered, he should obtain, and that Philip's death was fully revenged, which gave him so much satisfaction that he made splendid offerings to Jupiter, and gave the priests very rich presents. This is what most authors write concerning the oracles. But Alexander, in a letter to his mother, tells her there were some secret answers, which at his return he would communicate to her only. Others say that the priest, desirous as a piece of courtesy to address him in Greek, "O Paidion," by a slip in pronunciation ended with the s instead of the n, and said "O Paidios," which mistake Alexander was well enough pleased with, and it went for current that the oracle had called him so. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“Among the sayings of one Psammon, a philosopher, whom he heard in Egypt, he most approved of this, that all men are governed by God, because in everything, that which is chief and commands is divine. But what he pronounced himself upon this subject was even more like a philosopher, for he said God was the common father of us all, but more particularly of the best of us. To the barbarians he carried himself very haughtily, as if he were fully persuaded of his divine birth and parentage; but to the Grecians more moderately, and with less affectation of divinity, except it were once in writing to the Athenians about Samos, when he tells them that he should not himself have bestowed upon them that free and glorious city; "You received it," he says, "from the bounty of him who at that time was called my lord and father," meaning Philip. However, afterwards being wounded with an arrow, and feeling much pain, he turned to those about him, and told them, "This, my friends, is real flowing blood, not Ichor-

“"Such as immortal gods are wont to shed." And another time, when it thundered so much that everybody was afraid, and Anaxarchus, the sophist, asked him if he who was Jupiter's son could do anything like this, "Nay," said Alexander, laughing, "I have no desire to be formidable to my friends, as you would have me, who despised my table for being furnished with fish, and not with the heads of governors of provinces." For in fact it is related as true, that Anaxarchus, seeing a present of small fishes, which the king sent to Hephaestion, had used this expression, in a sort of irony, and disparagement of those who undergo vast labours and encounter great hazards in pursuit of magnificent objects which after all bring them little more pleasure or enjoyment than what others have. From what I have said upon this subject, it is apparent that Alexander in himself was not foolishly affected, or had the vanity to think himself really a god, but merely used his claims to divinity as a means of maintaining among other people the sense of his superiority.” |+|


Delos (near the the island of Mykonos) was the legendary birthplace of Apollo and the religious and political center of the Aegean for over a 1000 years. Today the uninhabited island is one huge archeological site. Most of the ruins aren't much more that well preserved foundations with a column here and a row of half-columns there but there some exceptions.

Most of the temples were dedicated the sun god and there is one place where four temples honoring him are located together, the oldest the "House of the Naxians" dates back to the 7th century B.C. Standing at the temple and looking to east you can see the remains of long narrow building called the "Sanctuary of the Bulls."

To the north is the Sacred Lake which is guarded by the Lions Way which contained nine huge archaic stone lions. About a half a kilometer from the site of the old Sacred Lake are the ruins of a stadium, and on a hill called Mount Kynthos are the remains of a sanctuary dedicated Zeus and Athena. One reason visitors can not stay on the islands is that in the old days people used take whatever they fancied home with them.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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