CARTOGRAPHER’S SELECTS: ORACLES AROUND THE WORLD
Ruins of the Tholos at Delphi via Wikimedia Commons
Ancient oracles counselled royalty and commoners alike. According to tradition, the oracle at Delphi told Socrates that he was the wisest man alive. In Egypt, the oracle of Amun lauded Alexander the Great as the “Son of Zeus”. Soon after, the Macedonian ruler captured Babylon and led his troops into India as the god Dionysios (another legendary son of Zeus) had done before him. King Saul, the fabled King of Israel, also sought advice from an oracular figure known ominously as the “Witch of Endor”. She summoned the prophet Samuel who prophesied Saul’s downfall. The next day, the Israelite king perished in battle.
Saul and the Witch of Endor by Matthias Stom via Wikimedia Commons
Some of history’s most interesting oracles however, are also the least well-known. The following list is a survey of real and semi-legendary men and women in Europe and Africa who were supposedly mouthpieces of the gods.
1. The Apennine Oracle (Sibillini Mountains, Italy)
The mountainous area around Norcia has had a reputation as a type of Shangri-La since the Middle Ages. In his fantasy tale, Il Guerrino Moschino (published in 1391) the romancer Andrea da Barbarino wrote of a hero’s adventure’s with a pagan temptress and oracle who lived in the Grotta della Sibilla (Cave of the Sybil) in the Sibillini Mountains. Barbarino’s book was hit and probably helped spread the rumors about Norcia’s mystique.
The city of Castelluccio in Norcia via Wikimedia Commons
In 1420, a French explorer named Antoine de la Sale travelled to the region. Mapping his journey, la Sale hiked across the Sibillini range until he came to a mysterious cave outside the village of Montemonaco. Apparently his fears got the best of him, as he was unable to go any further than the mouth of the cave. His assistants however, told him that the cavern’s tunnels seemed to lead into the bowels of hell. La Sale, who has been called “a precursor of a Rider Haggard hero or an Indiana Jones”, recorded his incredible experience in his work La Salade.
Mount Vettore in Norcia via Wikimedia Commons
Other Italians thought that the region was the dwelling place of councils of highly trained witches and wizards. In a letter to his brother, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) writes:
“But it came into my mind during the conversation, that in Umbria, in the old Duchy, not far from the town of Norcia, there is a cave beneath a steep rock, in which water flows. There, as I remember to have heard, are witches, demons, and nightly shades, and he that has the courage can see and speak to ghosts, and learn magical arts. I have not seen it, nor taken any trouble to see it, for that which is learned with sin is better not learned at all.”
Norcia’s link to esoteric knowledge is also expressed by the sixteenth-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini in his autobiography:
“As we were in the habit of meeting daily, the necromancer kept urging me to join in his adventure. Accordingly, I asked him how long it would take, and where we should have to go. To this he answered that we might get through with it in less than a month, and that the most suitable locality for the purpose was the hill country of Norcia; a master of his in the art had indeed consecrated such a book quite close to Rome, at a place called the Badia di Farfa; but he had met with some difficulties there, which would not occur in the mountains of Norcia; the peasants also of that district are people to be trusted, and have some practice in these matters, so that at a pinch they are able to render valuable assistance.”
2. The Gaulish Oracles (Île de Sein, France)
Île de Sein, is a Breton island off the coast of France. Greek and Roman authors believed that it was the homeland of nine women who could control the weather and foresee the future. Here’s what the first-century historian Pomponius Mela says:
“In the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi, the isle of Sena belongs to a Gallic divinity and is famous for its oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number. They call the priestesses Gallizenae and think that because they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up the seas and the winds by their magic charms, that they turn into whatever animals they want, that they cure what is incurable among other peoples, that they know and predict the future, but that it is not revealed except to sea-voyagers and then only to those traveling to consult them.”
The Storm Spirits by Evelyn De Morgan via The De Morgan Centre
His account is similar to one found in Strabo’s Geography:
“They say that in the ocean, not far from the coast, there is a small island lying opposite to the outlet of the river Loire, inhabited by Samnite women who are Bacchantes, and conciliate and appease that god by mysteries and sacrifices. No man is permitted to land on the island; and when the women desire to have intercourse with the other sex, they cross the sea, and afterwards return again. They have a custom of once a year unroofing the whole of the temple, and roofing it again the same day before sun-set, each one bringing some of the materials. If any one lets her burden fall, she is torn in pieces by the others, and her limbs carried round the temple with wild shouts, which they never cease until their rage is exhausted. [They say] it always happens that some one drops her burden, and is thus sacrificed.”
3. The Boeotian Oracle (Livadeia, Greece)
Livadeia and Herkyna river from the cave of Trophonius via Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library
In the Ancient Greco-Roman world, the phrase “to descend into the cave of Trophonios” meant to be scared silly. Trophonios was a hero who was worshiped as god after his death. His oracle was based in a cave in Livadeia. People who wanted to ask the god questions would have to go through a series complicated rites and purifications before the god could speak to them. A full account of the oracular process is detailed by the 2nd century AD geographer Pausanias:
“…when a man comes to Trophonios, they bring him a narrow, light ladder. After going down he finds a hole between the floor and the structure. Its breadth appeared to be two spans, and its height one span. The descender lies with his back on the ground, holding barley-cakes kneaded with honey, thrusts his feet into the hold and himself follows, trying hard to get his knees into the hole. After his knees the rest of his body is at once swiftly drawn in, just as the largest and most rapid river will catch a man in its eddy and carry him under. After this those who have entered the shrine learns the future, not in one and the same way in all cases, but by sight sometimes and at other times by hearing.”
The experience was supposed to be so horrific that inquirers often lost the ability to speak for a short period of time.
4. The Nubian Oracle (Aswan, Egypt)
Philae via Wikimedia Commons
A temple dedicated to Isis once rested on an island in the middle of the Nile called Philae. Sacred to both Nubians and Egyptians, Philae was thought to be one of the burial places of the god Osiris. During the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo I, the site became the focus of devotional cults that focused on the goddesses Hathor and Isis. Oracles may have been given through a statue of Isis, whose movements were interpreted by special priests. The religious complex functioned as a place of worship until 540 AD–well after the rise of Christianity. After the construction of the Aswan dam in the 20th century, the sanctuary was taken down, transported to Aggikia Island, and reassembled.
5. The Rhineland Oracle (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany)
The Wise Woman by Helen Stratton
Veleda was a prophetess and political leader who lived in a tower on the banks of the Lippe river during the 1st century AD. Like the famous oracle of Delphi, she was held in high regard by her people, the Bructeri. Her counsel was instrumental to her tribe’s early successes against Roman expansion in the region of Germania. What sets Veleda apart from other oracles is the fact that she was treated like a living goddess. The Roman historian Tacitus writes:
“…for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity.”
Tacitus also notes that no one was “allowed to approach or address” her. All correspondence between her and the public was mediated by her relatives who acted as her spokespeople. Despite the seer’s diplomatic efforts, Veleda was captured by General Rutilicus Gallicus after the Batavian revolt in 77AD. Her life may have been spared because of her popularity. The sorceress was banished from her homeland and sent to Rome to work as as a temple servant.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Do you have any more to add? Let us know below!