An Oracle is a person who practices Divination and Prophecy by allowing deities or supernatural beings to speak through them, often while in a trance. Oracle means “answer.” Oracular divination is ancient and universal, and numerous techniques have been developed for its practice.
In ancient Greece and Rome, oracles were often sought by leaders for important political and military advice. The mediums were sibyls, women priestesses usually past child-bearing age, who resided in caves that were believed to be the thrones of deities. Major sibyls resided in Phrygia, Libya, Persia, Samos, Cumae, Cimmeria, Marpessa, Tibur, and Erythrae. The most famous was at DELPHI in a temple near Mount Parnassus, about 100 miles from Athens.
Zeus was oracle to the Romans, who believed that the god resided in the oak trees at Dodua and spoke through the mouths of the Peleiads (doves). The Peleiads may have been priestesses impersonating doves. The old Prussians believed that gods inhabited oaks and other high TREES and that they whispered answers to inquirers.
The ancient Babylonians consulted priestesses as oracles and also relied on the dream visions of deities. Major oracular centers were at Mani and in Sargonid Assyria. The goddess Ishtar was referred to as “She Who Directs the Oracles.”
In the Old and the Middle Kingdoms of Egypt (2680– 1786 B.C.E.), women of important families were known as prophetesses who had access to the goddesses Hathor and Neith. Other oracular consultation took place in the form of dreams. In the Middle Kingdom (2000–1786 B.C.E.), dreams were believed to be sent by the gods so that people might know the future. Oracular dreams were both induced and spontaneous. In the New Kingdom (1570– 1342 B.C.E.), the first fully developed oracular procedure appeared with the use of cult statues. The statues—usually of Amun, the god of fertility, agriculture, and the breath of life—were carried in portable shrines on the shoulders of priests during festivals. The statues allegedly could nod and talk, perhaps due to surreptitious manipulation by a priest, or the priest indicated a “yes” answer by moving toward the enquirer and a “no” by recoiling. The statues were consulted by both commoner and royalty for predictions and dispensations of the law. A papyrus of magical Spells from the third century C.E. gives a Ritual for transforming a boy into an oracle.
The primary function of ancient Hebrew priests was to divine and give oracles. The priests were consulted at sanctuaries where Yahweh, God, was believed to be present. Their procedure included the use of Urin and Thummin, of which little is known but apparently that were objects which the priests consulted. Answers were given by lots, though the oracle could give a “no-answer.” Many answers required interpretation by the priests.
There is evidence that pre-Christian tribes of Germanic and Scandinavian peoples consulted oracles. The Wizards and village wise women of the Middle Ages who were consulted for their clairvoyant gifts were a form of oracle. The oracular practices were condemned by the Christian Church, even though a Christian priest functions as an oracle when he is consulted for advice, for he is expected to have a superior communication with God. Spiritualist mediums who consult the spirits of the dead also are a type of oracle.
In Welsh lore, the Awenydhon were a type of oracle who became inspired by spirit Possession. They delivered answers to questions by violently roaring irrational and incoherent speeches that had to be interpreted. The term oracle is rarely used in modern times, having been supplanted by such terms as mediums, psychics, channelers, and intuitive consultants.
- Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: William Morrow, 1980.
- Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. New York: Avenel Books, 1981.
- Marwick, Max (ed.). Witchcraft and Sorcery. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 2d ed., 1982.
- Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Van Nuys, Calif.: Newscastle Publishing, 1996.
- Thomas, Keith. Religion & the Decline of Magic. New York: Scribners, 1971.
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