The Oracle: Real Or Myth?

By Valerie Willis

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Oracles have been some of the most mesmerizing characters in a wide range of Fantasy and Science Fiction works, including roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons), books (like The Last Oracle by James Rollins), and even in the movies (like 300, in which the oracle warned of the fall of Sparta). At the core of it all, many will say the traditions of the oracle were part of Greek and Roman mythology. Visitors to Delphi, in Greece, are honored to visit the physical location where, long ago, The Oracle of Delphi sat upon the Sibyl Stone to give her predictions.

Was she real or myth?

Upon writing my novel, The Oracle (book three of The Cedric Series), I stumbled upon some amazing discoveries…

The Origins Of The Oracle…

The word oracle is a late 14th century term, which makes its creation almost a thousand years after the fall of the last known oracle (2,6). The term as we know it today implies a median or messenger from god, or fortune teller. Chasing the origins of the word, past its Old French starts (as a temple or house prayer), beyond the Latin oraculum (meaning divine announcement), we find ourselves at the root of a long forgotten language. Here we uncover the foundation, orare, still found in the Spanish language, which means to plead or beg. Old or Archaic Latin, the foundation upon which Latin and Romance languages were built, has vocal usage. This predates its earliest known written form, which is on on a belt buckle dating in the seventh century BC (3).

This leads me to reveal that, during the age in which oracles existed, they were never referred to as such. Instead, the proper word would be sibyl. If we venture back into the origins of this word, the ancient Dorian (older than Archaic Latin) word siobolla (meaning “divine wish”), was adapted to become sibylla in Ancient Greek, the official term for a woman possessed by powers of prophecy (7).

Now we are getting to the root of the matter. Oracle is a new term, far from the proper title used in their own time.

In the Beginning…

One of the more well-known oracles is that at Delphi, where a shrine to The Oracle dates as far back as 1400 BC. This fact is a little confusing, since Greek Mythology was first introduced orally during the “Age of Heroes” (the Bronze Age) in the 11th century BC (4). A three-hundred-year gap stands between the existence of Oracles and the Greek Mythology that is their supposed origin.

The Oracle at Delphi had a shrine, and devoted followers, along with an established system for successors. We can only ponder as to why she wasn’t deemed a goddess herself, and wonder how the oracle in Delphi is devoted to Apollo? Wouldn’t that mean Apollo predates his own mythos? (An interesting question for another article.)

Delphi, Greece

This location was first settled by small tribes in the Bronze Age, between the 14th and 11th centuries BC. If the name feels familiar, this has been one of the pivotal locations for the Olympics since the 20th Century, and before that, the Pythian Games. The location became subject to Roman rule in 191 BC (5), and it was ransacked for treasuries, falling under scrutiny for Christian practices. Visiting the area today, you can see Mt. Parnassus and remnants of the temples on its plateau. The two significant locations here are the Sibyl Stone and the Treasury of Apollo. At one point, Delphi was the center of the world for many ancient people, and the oracle (or sibyl) was at its core. By the 8th century BC, the oracle was internationally known, the most well-documented being Pythia.

At Delphi, vapors seeped out of the earth and springs, containing chemicals that induced a hallucinogenic state and even ecstasy. The fumes were cold, boiling out of the Castalian Springs at the Oracles feet. She sat upon a tripod stool and sang, mumbled, and spoke her prophecies. The location was sealed, or blocked off, after the temple fell apart following the last Roman raid. Many believe this is the reason the oracle finally lost her hold on the world, as the fumes lost their potency. Volcanic activity is not uncommon in this area, with Mt. Vesuvius just across the Ionian Sea – the volcano that notoriously wiping out Pompeii and Herculaneum. Regardless, modern geologists have confirmed intoxicating fumes were indeed seeping up through the limestone and springs in the area.

The First Oracle and the Sibyl Stone…

The stone is named after the first oracle, referred to as the Sibyl. Her real name was Herophile (6), though she is associated with several others. The oracle was originally considered to speak on behalf of Gaia herself. Herophile, the great prophetess who lived on the plateau of Mt. Parnassus, earned herself quite the reputation for her accuracy. She stood upon a chunk of stone and spoke her predictions. Later, the sacred stone was named the Sibyl Stone. Sadly, most of the books and tomes in which her many predictions were recorded have been destroyed in fires. Many of them were kept in Rome, but fires in 84 BC and 69 AD devoured what had been left behind by the first oracle, Herophile.

Despite the loss of so much, there are some written pieces surviving within the Sibylline Collection (8), which has a wonderful, translated digital file you can download. It describes Herophile as a priestess of Gaia. Her famous abilities shocked the world countless times and even now, many speculate her words are dubiously placed within the pages of religious books, which have stood the test of time (8). These temples and shrines that sprang up all across the landscape surrounding the oracle depicted Apollo and his sister, Artemis, battling giants and monsters alike. One can’t help but wonder if Herophile was Artemis herself, although she predates Christianity and written Greek Mythology.

Greek and Roman Influences…

During the Dark Ages and the time of Ancient Greece (12th to 1st centuries BC), an alliance of tribes in Greece tasked themselves with defending the oracles in Delphi. The oracles shifted their own devotion from Gaia to Apollo, to appeal to their new protectors. Their influence was so great, they were depicted on Greek money early on in their ascension. Many kings and rulers traveled far and wide to see the oracle on the Sibyl stone, and later within the Temple of Apollo. It was, perhaps, a way for the tribes to stay under the radar, and prevent themselves being completely pummeled by the turmoil unfolding around them.

Herophile and her successors were noted to have written nine books, which a Sibyl brought to the Roman King Tarquinius. She demanded three hundred pieces of gold for them. The Roman, unsure what the books were, denied her request and she threw three of the books into the fire. Later, she approached again with the remaining six, demanding the same price. The king humored her, looking over the tomes, only to be astonished by the predictions. Thus began Rome’s relationship with the oracle, and the rise of a new wave of honoring and relishing them. Although these six tomes and those commissioned after the initial buy were later lost in fires, the oracle once again proved she was fully capable of securing her own future with her own ability. This was the epitome of feminine power, in a time when very little seemed to be evident.

Downfall of the Oracle…

The biggest discrepancy and conflict in the story of the oracle is when they faded from the world. One fact remains consistent: the sibyls were wiped out by Julian the Apostate, the Christian emperor who flipped back to paganism, and turned to them for aid in his efforts. Not just one, but several sibyls, refused to aid him or provide a single prophecy to him. In the translated Sibylline Collection, Book 12, line 316 predicts the coming of Julian and his destruction of many men. Perhaps this prior prophecy is why the oracles of his time had refused to aid him (8). Outraged, Julian funded a campaign to wipe out all known sybils and their temples. The reign of the oracle fell, the last shrine emptied in 390 AD by the order of the Christian Emperor Theodosis (6), and the shrine was leveled.

The sibyls were an order of soothsayers who shook the world, spanning the Bronze Age, the Dark Ages, Ancient times, and traversing through the Age of Antiquity. Their followers came from a mixture of backgrounds, from paganist Sabine tribes, to Persian royalty, to Christian Emperors. The Oracle of Delphi should be seen as an umbrella term for the nameless faces who foretold and forewarned the world of what was to come. If you wish to discover more, I highly encourage you visit Sacred Texts and download the translated Sibylline books for yourself…

References

  1. http://gadling.com/2010/09/21/the-death-of-paganism-how-the-roman-empire-converted-to-christi/
  2. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=oracle
  3. http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/Ling450ch/reports/latin.html
  4. http://ancient-greece.org/history/bronze-age.html
  5. http://ancient-greece.org/history/delphi.html
  6. http://www.crystalinks.com/delphi.html
  7. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sibyl
  8. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/sib/
  9. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-oracle-of-delphi%E2%80%94was-she-really-stoned/
  10. http://www.coastal.edu/intranet/ashes2art/delphi2/misc-essays/oracle_of_delphi.html

    Valerie Willis

Valerie Willis

Valerie Willis is the author of The Cedric Series, a high-rated Paranormal Fantasy Romance Series featuring an anti-hero dragged away from the revenge he seeks on his maker by love and the onset of a larger threat. Valerie’s work is inspired by a melting pot of mythology, folklores, history, topped off with a healthy dose of foreshadowing.