The Student's Mythology A Compendium of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Hindoo, Chinese, Thibetian, Scandinavian, Celtic, Aztec, and Peruvian Mythologies
Page: 35Omens were drawn from the appearance of the entrails of animals offered in sacrifice, also from the meeting with quadrupeds in any unaccustomed place.
The fifth class of omens was taken from different casualties, such as spilling salt, stumbling on the threshold, sneezing, meeting a hare, wolf, fox, etc. Some of these last superstitions prevail, more or less, to the present day.
Ques. What do you understand by oracles?
Ans. The places where the heathen divinities were supposed to answer those who consulted them, were called oracles. This word was also applied to the responses given.
Ques. Name some of the more famous oracles?
Ans. Among the most celebrated were, the oracles of Jupiter at Dodo´na; of Apollo, at Delphi; of Trophonius, near Lebe´dea in Bœotia; of Jupiter Ammon, in the deserts of Lybia; of Æsculapius at Epidaurus; and the Castalian Fount.
Ques. Describe the oracle of Dodo´na.
Ans. Dodo´na was a town of Epirus, probably situated in the valley now called Joannina, but the exact site has not been ascertained. In the earlier times Jupiter gave answers to his votaries by means of a so-called vocal oak or beach. Brazen instruments, suspended from the higher branches, clashed together when moved by the wind. The priestesses who were appointed to [Pg 181] explain the responses of the oracle could attach whatever meaning they pleased to these inarticulate sounds. Later, the Corcyrians presented to the temple a brazen caldron surmounted by a figure of the same metal; the statue held in its hand a whip, the lash of which consisted of three chains, each having an astragalus (a small bone) at the end. These, when moved by the winds, struck the caldron, and produced so continuous a sound that four hundred vibrations were sometimes counted before it ceased. Demosthenes tells us that the responses delivered to the Athenians at Dodo´na were carefully preserved in the public archives; their reverence for the oracle did not, however, prevent them from accusing the priestess of being influenced by bribes when they were dissatisfied with her answers.
The oracle of Dodo´na was probably the most ancient in Greece. The temple was founded by the Pelasgi long before the siege of Troy; it was partially destroyed by the Ætolians during the Social War, and it would seem that it never recovered from this disaster. The town existed many centuries later; and we read of a bishop of Dodo´na who attended the council of Ephesus.
Ques. What does Diodorus tell us concerning the oracle at Delphi?
Ans. This historian relates that a shepherd, while feeding his flocks on the side of Mount Parnassus, observed that his sheep and goats, on approaching a certain cavity in the earth, began [Pg 182] to skip and dance about in an extraordinary manner. As he drew near to examine the cause of this phenomenon, the vapors, exhaling from the earth, affected him in the same way; his body was convulsed, and he spoke words which revealed futurity. Others experienced similar effects, and the exhalation was supposed to have a certain divine property. The cavity was approached with reverence; a tripod was placed over it; and a priestess or Pythia was appointed to preside. The words which she uttered when under the influence of the vapor were considered to be inspired by Apollo; crowds came to consult the oracle; a temple was built, and the city of Delphi arose insensibly around the spot.
As the oracle grew in repute it became necessary to appoint a second and a third Pythia to answer those who came to consult the god. The Pythia could not prophesy until she had become intoxicated by the vapor from the sanctuary. This effect was not produced at all times, and on some days it was not permitted to consult the oracle. Spring was considered the most propitious season. When Apollo was favorably disposed, his approach was made known by the moving of a laurel that stood before the gate of the temple. The sacred tree was then seen to tremble in every leaf.
The Pythia was obliged to prepare by fasts, sacrifices and purifications before she ascended the tripod. When under the influence of the [Pg 183] mysterious vapor, her hair stood erect, her eyes flashed, she foamed at the mouth, and a convulsive trembling seized her whole body.