Oracles in ancient Greece – definition of a Greek oracle

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Stone walls and a big tree on the side of a mountain: Dodona's Greek oracle

A Greek oracle: the oracle at Dodona in northern Greece

Definition of a Greek oracle

The word oracle in Greek can mean several related things. It means a god who predicts the future, like Apollo. It also means the priest who hears the message, and the message itself, and the place where the priest hears the message. Most often it means the priest or the message.

The Greeks believed (like all other ancient people) that you could communicate with the gods at certain places, at certain times, through certain people, and that the gods would give you advice and maybe tell you what was going to happen in the future.

Consulting the Delphic oracle: A Greek oracle

Consulting the Delphic oracle

Why did Greek people believe in oracles?

This is certainly no stupider than calling the Psychic Hotline, which thousands of people do every day. Actually, it probably makes more sense than that. First of all, both the Greek oracles and the Psychic Hotline have in common that they hear the same questions over and over, and they listen all day to people telling more or less the same kinds of stories over and over. “Will my boyfriend leave me?” “Will my kids turn out bad?” “Will I get this job?” After you have some experience, you can predict pretty well what will happen just because you have already seen the same thing happen to so many other people.

How did a Greek oracle predict the future?

But the Greek oracles had a couple of advantages too. First, you didn’t just come and ask your question. You had to hang around the temple for a while, talking to the priests, so they could get to know you. And they could see you, not just hear your voice on the telephone. Second, everybody came to the same few oracles for help, and the priests at these oracles (unlike the Psychic Hotline) compared notes with each other.

So if you asked “Should I get married?” and the oracle said “Yes,” and then next week your girlfriend comes and she asks, “Will Gorgias ask me to marry him?” then the oracle already knows the answer to that one. There is every reason to think that the oracles were worth the money they charged.

Where were the Greek oracles?

The most important Greek oracle was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, though there were many others. Other countries like Egypt, the Persian Empire, and the Roman Empire, also had oracles.

Learn by doing: write oracles to predict the future for your friends
More about the oracle at Delphi
More about Greek sacrifice

Bibliography and further reading about Greek oracles:

More about Delphi
Ancient Greece home

By | 2017-12-29T21:43:52+00:00 July 16th, 2017|Greeks, Literature|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Oracles in ancient Greece – definition of a Greek oracle. Study Guides, July 16, 2017. Web. May 21, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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