Under the ancient oak, home to mighty Zeus, a priest holding a thin sheet of lead is waiting patiently for the widow before him to ask her question. She hesitates for a moment, listening to the rustling leaves over them.
“It’s my job to interpret these,” he jokes.
“I’m sorry,” she says, blushing. Then, she asks her question: “I lost my husband a few years ago. Now, I have met someone. He wants us to get married, but it feels wrong.” She raises pleading eyes to the priest, who’s scribbling down notes on the lead parchment. “I need to know. Should I remarry, or remain a widow?”
Behind her, Hermon, a wealthy merchant, is waiting his turn. The question he wants to ask concerns the future of his family. Which god should he pray to, in order for him and his wife, Kritaian, to have useful heirs to his fortune?
The Dodoni Oracle
Last summer, I wrote about the Acropolis Museum. This year, the museum hosts an exhibition dedicated to the Dodona Oracle. The above are just two of the questions asked by ancient Greeks.
Other questions include: “Am I losing my husband?”;”I’m childless; whom should I date to have some children?”;”Should I take the trip to Carthage?”; and “Should I repay my debts now, or later on?”
About 5,000 of these lead sheets have been unearthed so far, with questions concerning commerce, family fortunes, legal troubles, health, love, and marriage.
The priests would write them down and decipher the rustling of the sacred oak; the cooing of pigeons; and the sounds of copper plates. Then, they’d come back with Zeus’ answer.
Ever since the Copper Age (3,500 BC), Dodona has been functioning as an oracle, dedicated first to the Earth Mother, and then to Zeus, who was believed to reside along with his wife, Dioni, inside the roots of a sacred oak. It all started with a sheep thief: the oak identified him, thus starting a millennia-long tradition. The Oracle delivered the god’s will to everyone, from simple people to kings, who would express their gratitude with great gifts.
The end of an era
According to tradition, the Oracle gave its last divination in 362 AD, when king Julian the Apostate asked the gods what he should do in order to fight the new religion, Christianity, and return the world to the old glory.
“The elaborate house has fallen down,” was the disappointing divination. “Apollo no longer has a home, nor an oracular laurel, nor a talking spring.”
The end was near, and in 391 AD, Emperor Theodosius ordered the closure of all oracles. Shortly afterwards, the sacred oak was cut down and a Christian church was built on top of its ruins of the old oracle.
Anyone finding themselves in Athens can visit the Acropolis Museum exhibition and see for themselves how little our questions have changed through the ages.
This post is part 2 of a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.