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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(from the Latin oraculum) is a term of fluctuating and often vague signification, according to the various modes of its employment. In its primary acceptation it means an utterance inspired by a divinity; and the term may have originated from the supposition that the human mouth — os, oris — from which the supernatural declaration proceeded, was merely the mechanical and involuntary instrument moved by divine power, as in the case of the Cumaean Sibyl, to become the means of communicating the divine will to men
"Ille fatigat Os rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo."
By an easy metonymy the term is used to denote the place where such communications are made. By various metaphorical deflections the name is applied to the deity who inspires and the possessed who proclaims the messages. By a further transition it is given to all predictions or revelations; and hence, in an especial manner, to the commands of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and of the New Covenant; to the priests and preachers whose calling it is to promulgate, expound, and enforce these decrees. Hence also its application is extended to those who possess an extraordinary degree of sagacity and wisdom; and, ironically, to those who arrogate such superior wisdom to themselves, or whose manner appears to indicate the assumption of such pretensions. The subordinate meanings are sufficiently illustrated by the dictionaries. It is only the primary and the closely associated secondary meaning that it will be appropriate to consider here the supernatural communication, and the place where it is habitually delivered.
1. An oracle, or oraculum, in this primary signification, corresponds very closely to the Greek χρηστήριον and μαντεῖον — the former term referring to a divine answer given at a definite place by a particular deity; the latter having a more general application, and including all prophetic utterances by those recognized as possessing the gift of vaticination, though frequently employed in the more restricted sense. It is not essential, however, that the communication should be made directly by the divinity through the mouth of the human instrument. The priest, prophet, seer, or medium may be merely the appointed and singularly gifted interpreter of signs or sounds or visions or impressions or symbols or associations. The answers to applicants were sometimes conveyed by speech, sometimes by writing, sometimes by strange noises, sometimes by tintamarre of sacred vessels, sometimes by dreams which were explained by the inspired ministrants; and at other times by the exposition of the mystic meaning of the first exclamations of the inquirer after awakening from a vaticinatory trance. Nearly all the multitudinous forms of divination were, in different periods or localities, connected with Oracular illumination. All signs, accidents, and lots might come from the deities as well as dreams from Jove. As the gods were consulted in regard to all the concerns, interests, and desires of human life, public and private, the answers received from them embraced the same variety of subjects, and were by no means confined to prophetic warnings or divine indications of future events. It is thus that the designation of oracle is extended to all divine commands, or directions supposed to be divine, and hence also to wise counsels and precepts. But the derivative significances need to be no further regarded than maybe necessary for the avoidance of ambiguities. The topics immediately before us require only the notice of communications supposed to be of divine origin, by whatever modes or channels they may be transmitted to men.
If Mr. Austin Caxton had ever completed and published his History of Human Error, a large and very important division of his work must have been devoted to the consideration of oracular credulity. . The oracles of Greece exercised such influence on the Hellenic world, and are so prominent in classic literature, that the mind spontaneously and almost exclusively reverts to the grove of Dodona, the temple of Delphi, the cave of Trophonius, or the oasis of Ammon, when the subject of oracles is introduced. But these are only the most notable and the most noted instances of oracular persuasion. The temper which provokes these delusive satisfactions and the temper which gratifies such delusions are found alike in all ages and among all races, though frequently so disguised as to be entirely overlooked. In every pagan age and in every pagan race the superstitious belief in oracular communications is readily discernible. The human heart instinctively craves, supernatural guidance; the human mind longs for the supernatural revelation of the issues of actions and of coming events, and eagerly believes in any pretense which professes to satisfy its anxiety in either respect. It was the despairing advice of the skeptical Epicurean, after the multitudinous hazards, surprises, fears, and disappointments of the civil wars, which was given by Horace when he ejaculated,
"Quid sit futurum oras, fuge quaerere;"
and a second time, when he exclaimed,
"Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi, Finem di dederint."
But in all crude and still believing periods, among all rude and unenlightened populations and classes, whether in the 19th century before or the 19th century after Christ, and in all the intervening centuries,'we find the same disposition to seek and to accept supramundane direction and knowledge; and no age is so poor in deceivers, themselves often deceived, as to fail in providing ministers for this want.
It is not simply that among savage tribes or classes of imperfect mental and moral discipline prophets constitute venerated and important members of the loose organization; but that their prophets always pretend and are believed to be in direct communication with unearthly wisdom, and to be specially commissioned to impart — always for a consideration, as Bayle follows Athenaeus in remarking — the will or the purpose of destiny to those who consult them. To the untutored fancy the whole universe swarms with superhuman intelligences. The strong and hungry faith and the weak intellectual discernment recognize but slight differences between the human and the divine, and see no improbability in the constant intercourse between the guardian deities and the favored spirits of the tribe. If Pindar, in the age when the Theseum was built, could maintain that "men and gods were of one origin, and that both descended from the same mother," how much deeper .must have been the sentiment of communion between embodied and disembodied souls in less advanced populations?
Recent investigations into "primitive culture," or the condition and belief of the earlier stages of society, with the comparison of similarities of conviction and practice which such investigations have occasioned, throw new though often indirect light upon the mystery of oracles, and enable us to form juster notions of the phase of popular thought by which they are induced and accredited. When the attention was restricted to the oracles of Greece and the rarer and less notable oracles of Italy, the explanation of their occurrence and of their frequent appearance of veracity might oscillate between the allegation of demoniac, or truly divine inspiration, and systematic fraud and imposture. But when oracles in all variety, from crude mummery to singular discernment, are discovered among all pagan nations, and among all semi-pagan classes in Christian communities, it is necessary to refer their production and acceptance to the characteristics of the untrained intellect of man. With the information thus obtained it may be possible to understand the changing aspects of the same enduring delusion.
The office of the prophet in his character of interpreter of the will of the gods, and intermediary between deities and men, has existed, as already declared, among all heathen peoples. Such seers were found not merely among the Greeks, from the time of the Homeric Calchas and the precursors of Calchas, but were also an established order in the Phoenician cities and among the Celtic tribes. They still exercise their controlling influence not only among the North American Indians and the Tartars, but, contemporaneously with sachems and Shamans, their congeners are common among African tribes and Polynesian Islanders. It is strange also to find in the accounts given of a Kaffre prophet the symptoms of the access of the divine afflatus which were reported of the Delphic Pythoness, and ascribed by Virgil to the Cumsean Sibyl. "He becomes depressed in mind; prefers solitude to company, and often has fainting fits; he is visited by dreams of an extraordinary character; he becomes more and more possessed, until the perturbations of the spirit manifest themselves openly. In this stage he utters terrible yells, leaps here and there with astonishing vigor." He tells his family and friends, "People-call me mad; I know they say I am mad; that is nothing; the spirits are influencing me." Is this all imposture in the poor African? Is it not more hallucination than imposture.? Is it actual daemoniacal possession? or is it not rather that morbid exaltation of enthusiastic credulity which has been recognized by physicians as a specific disease? Are not the like furies which were attributed to the priestess of Delphi, at least in their primitive exhibition, due to the same causes?
With the accounts of the African prophet and of the Sibyl and Pythoness may be advantageously compared the report of the call of Tecumseh's brother to the prophetic office. "Lo, the poor Indian!" In this case there was more of artifice and design, more imposture than self-delusion; but could the experiment have succeeded with his people and the allied tribes unless there had originally been innocent hallucination to cherish the growth of credulity?
The suggestion of a natural exposition, at once physiological and psychical, for the phenomena of oracular inspiration, by no means militates against the recognition of a large infusion of fraud and imposture in the systematic establishment of oracular agencies. It is impossible, as has frequently been observed, to distinguish by any clear line of demarcation between delusion and deception. The two temperaments blend insensibly into each other. What began in a diseased apprehension — in a morbid, dreamy conviction — passes by slow degrees and by multitudinous shades of difference into hypocritical pretense and mercenary jugglery; but something of the original fantasy remains in the mind of the impostor, and continues to fill the awe- struck hearts of the votaries.
2. There has been, and not yet has there ceased to be, much discussion in regard to the character of the inspiration of the ancient oracles of Greece. Whatever doctrine may be adopted, it is manifest that it should be capable of embracing all the phenomena, and should be applicable to the explanation of oracles in all their forms and in all their localities. Three theories have been propounded and warmly advocated by their respective champions: 1: The hypothesis of actual and veracious inspiration by God, or the angels of God. 2: That of diabolic intervention. 3: That of the contrivance of designing men, which will include the common and unreflecting' allegation of pure chicanery and fraudulent deception. The first view has been entertained even in late years, and seems partially sanctioned by some of the Christian fathers, especially in their respect for Sibylline inspiration. The second opinion prevailed generally among the doctors of both the Greek and Latin churches, and was usually entertained until recent times, having the support of the historian Rollin, the English divines Sherlock and Collyer, and many other writers of note. The third explanation is that which is now prevalent, and was promulgated by Bayle, and supported by Van Dale and Fontenelle.
The remarks already made will show that the first and second of these solutions are deemed unsatisfactory, and that the third is considered an incomplete interpretation of the enigma. It is not denied that imposture was common; and this was fully recognized by the ancients in the height of their belief in oracles. Thucydides affords his testimony to the fact, and Aristophanes ridicules the collections of forged oracles which were in vogue during the Peloponnesian wars. It was not among the Jews only that four hundred false prophets might have been found for one wise one. But all oracles were not at all times deliberate forgeries. The existence and the credit of oracular responses, and the eminent influence which they long possessed, were due to original appetencies and hallucinations of the uninformed and undeveloped mind of man. Do not children still half or wholly believe.that their little misdeeds are reported by the birds, or by whispers in the air? The pious cheat which the mother practices on her wondering offspring reveals at once the origin and the permanence of the belief in oracular communications much more satisfactorily than either of the first two theories specified above, or than the third adopted without addition or limitation. This instinctive credulity furnishes the foundation on which concealed ingenuity or miserable fraud erected imposing structures. That the element of fraud increases in such annunciations with the increasing intelligence of the community, and with the decline of unquestioning superstition, is not to be doubted; and that the ignorant trust of unenlightened races in the official promulgation of divine counsels is deluded by formal arrangements for the use or abuse of such trust must also be admitted. Yet certainly there is no consistency in charging to willful deception all oracular utterances, while Mesmerism and Millerism still attract thousands of earnest and honest believers.
A superstitious tendency habitual to the uneducated mind, and confirmed by associations in regard to spiritual influences incident to that stage, would appear to be the truest explanation of the origin of oracles. A prophetic or priestly class, identical or partially distinct, by the very transmission of its functions, makes a trade of what was previously a mental infirmity, a morbid enthusiasm. The function, sustained by the enduring popular faith, is converted into an instrument of rule, of guidance, of police, and of instruction, and is employed by the authorities, or by an association of sagacious men, for the government and elevation of the community. As other titles to control, other modes of regulation, other schemes of popular culture, come into use, and more effectually discharge the like offices, the need of oracular direction diminishes; the hands that moved the puppets are withdrawn, and the agency long imagined to be divine ceases to act, or is transferred to pretenders, who trifle with the remnants of credulity for the secret power or the petty gains which may thus be achieved. A due estimate is rarely made of the large capacity of man for the belief in marvels and prodigies which superstitious terror or superstitious hope may incline him to believe.
It will be noticed that a large share in the production of oracles is conceded to design and to deliberate contrivance — let it not be called merely imposture — during that phase of their existence when they exerted the most methodical influence. This was pre-eminently the case during the ascendency of the Delphic shrine. The power exercised over the whole Hellenic world from that mysterious and splendid center of oracular inspiration was amazing, and was rendered more amazing by the discordant and repellent attitude of the numerous Greek communities towards each other. Curtius may be guilty of nothing worse than exaggeration in attributing to the Delphic oracle, and to the prominence thus conferred on the Dorian Apollo, the rapid advancement of Spartan power and the moral culture of the contemporaneous Greeks. Certainly, consummate wisdom, wondrous sagacity, extensive knowledge, and unprecedented ethical purity were displayed in the Pythian responses. Whoever inspired the Pythoness must have been greatly superior to the contemporary populations in statesmanship, in information, and in morals. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, which has all the air of being a Delphic production, startles us as much as does the Prometheus Vinctus by the marked elevation of its sentiments and by its singular adumbrations of Christian doctrine. Apollo, the son of Jove, the peculiar god of prophecy and lord of the oracle, assumes the office of teacher of his people, and breathes a higher and more vital air into the lungs of his votaries.
A long series of changes and transmutations in the character and conduct of oracles is thus admitted and accounted for. They are just such changes, too, as are consonant with the whole order of human development, and illustrated by the whole progress of society. The changes, however, are by no means confined to the human agencies in the production of oracular intelligence. The oracular divinities themselves were subject to the same empire of mutability.
Among all races, the supernal powers, in their primitive character, are invoked exclusively for the purpose of portending, preventing, removing, or redressing evils, which they are themselves believed to inflict. Jupiter Ἀλεξίκακος , or Opitulus, was probably the earliest distinct appearance of the Olympian Jove. In the exercise of their functions, the deities united, like country apothecaries in old time, all therapeutic offices in themselves, and prescribed for all ailments of mind, body, and estate. It was only gradually, by the application of the doctrine of the division of labor, that Jupiter devolved sundry of his duties upon Apollo, as subsequently Apollo did upon Esculapius, as. he upon his sons Machaon and Podalirius, by whom they were turned over to their supposed descendants, the Asclepiadiae. The same process of segregation and differentiation, as Herbert Spencer would say, was manifested by the divinities as by their special ministers, the prophets. These, at first and through long generations, protected against witchcraft, adverse spirits, the evil eye, and other obscure afflictions; they averted or relieved pain by incantation; they cured wounds and mended broken bones; they brought rain, like Jupiter Pluvius; they discovered lost cattle and missing goods; they detected thieves; they announced the mollia tenpora fandi et agendi; they treasured up or invented the past; they foretold the future; they held confidential intercourse with their patron or paternal gods; they became the habitual interpreters of their will, the exponents of their wisdom, and the accredited channels of communication with them. The last and highest office was not separated from the rest till the rest had sunk into such secondary importance as to be entrusted to the ordinary acolytes of "the schools of the prophets," or to other professional gentry. The progressive discrimination of the prophetic function is equally displayed in the prophets and in the divinities. The Father of gods and men is obscured in oracular eminence by his son Apollo, who becomes the special deity of plague and physic and music and song and prophecy. In the latest Hellenic ages Apollo is himself eclipsed by the deified mortals Amphiaraus and Amphilochus. Thus oracle-mongering was not only withdrawn from the department of the general practitioner, but declined into the keeping of subordinate persons.
3. Attention will now be directed to this distinct phase of oracular manifestation, and will be concentrated on those celebrated oracles of classical antiquity which alone ordinarily present themselves. All notice of the Sibyls and the Sibylline oramcles will be deferred to a separate article, as, notwithstanding their superior interest and importance, they had an entirely distinct origin and character. (See SIBYL) and (See SIBYLLINE ORACLES).
The most ancient known oracle of Greece was that of Jupiter at Dodona, where communications were made from hollow oaks, or by the clatter of the sacred kettles suspended in the sacred grove. The answers, accordingly, were not direct, but conjectural, and were determined by the arbitrary interpretations of the priests. Dodona is mentioned by Homer, once in the authentic text, and once in the Catalogue of the Ships; but in neither place does the oracle seem known to the poet. He does not seem to be acquainted with any oracular locality. With him the individual seer, directly inspired by Apollo, is the depositary of the prophetic gift. This is a striking evidence of the great antiquity of the Homeric rhapsodies, for Dodona was certainly much more ancient than Delphi, and Delphi had reached or passed its zenith of eminence when Pindar wrote. The oracle of the Pythian Apollo, in a glen of Parnassus, was much the most famous of all the Hellenic seats of prophecy, and threw completely into the shade the Dodondean Grove and the other oracles of Jupiter. The eclipse was probably due to migrations and changed relations among the Greek races, and may be plausibly connected with the Dorian conquest of Peloponnesus. But the altered mode of transmitting the divine replies evinces a change of intellectual condition and an advance in civility. At Delphi the prophetic medium was a female, called the Pythoness, who was thrown into convulsions and incoherent ejaculations by gases supposed to issue from crevices in the rock. These utterances were professedly taken down by the attendant priest, and delivered to the postulants, originally, and usually in all periods, in the form of hexameter verses, but occasionally in iambics after Athenian supremacy had disseminated Attic fashions and an acquaintance with the Attic dialect.
Dodona and Delphi are the most noted of Greek oracles; but they lead a long array of names of greater or lesser renown in both Greece and Italy, as well as in other lands reached by Greek influences or open to Greek interpretation. Nor is there any reason to suppose that even the names of all the oracles of temporary or local celebrity have been preserved. Besides the great oracle of Jupiter at Dodona, there was one in Boeotia, one in Elis, and one of much brief fame in the sandy deserts of Libya — that of Jupiter Ammon, consulted by Lysander and by Alexander the Great. Apollo had a much longer list of oracular shrines — at Argos, at Corinth, at Lacedaemon, at Claros, at Branchidae, at Antioch, at Patara, in Arcadia, in Cilicia, in Troas, at Baiae, and at many other places. Other divinities, both Dii Majores anid Dii Matinores, had their seats of vaticination scattered throughout the Hellenic settlements and beyond them. Diana had oracles at Ephesus, in Cilicia, and in Egypt. Juno gave comfort at Corinth, at Nysa, and elsewhere. Minerva responded at Mycenae, on Mount AEtna, in Colchis, and in Spain. Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, Mars, Venus, Pan, Hercules, and AEsculapius, all kept offices for prophetic intelligence. Even inferior immortals shared in the publication of the secrets of Fate. Fortune deceived her suitors at Antium; Castor and Pollux were in partnership at Sparta; the Nymphs received anxious visitors at the Corycian Cave; Machaon welcomed inquirers in Laconia; Trophonius, at Lebadea; Tiresias, at Orchomenos. Ulysses, Mopsus, Aristeus, Sarpedon, Calchas, Amphiaraus, Autolycus, and many others, male and female, had establishments in various quarters. Carmenta and her sister Camenee had their cells of inspiration on the Capitoline Hill at Rome,. and in the neighborhood. Faunus was consulted at Tibur, in Latium; and near by was the grove of the oracular nymph Albunea-domus Albuneoe resonantis. Both are commemorated in conjunction by Virgil, and the latter is noted as a tenth Sibyl by Lactantius, who states that her predictions (sortes) were deposited in the Capitol by the Roman Senate. But it would be tedious to extend the list still further, and impossible to complete it. The number of oracles multiplied as they became vulgarized and discredited. Their multitude furnished a poor compensation for their loss of authority.
4. From the time of the Peloponnesian War the oracles ceased to exert any considerable influence over the more intelligent Greeks. They were still consulted, and were treated with external respect. They might be employed for the furtherance of political and religious aims, and to operate on the multitude; but there could be little genuine faith in them when the temples to which they were attached were unscrupulously plundered for the maintenance of domestic wars. Moreover, oracle was weighed against oracle; contradictory replies were expected from rival establishments; and the unsatisfactory reply of one divinity was set aside for the more encouraging response of another. This discord in heaven was turned into ridicule by Aristophanes.
The decay of reputation naturally promoted and attended the decline of oracles. The diminution of respect commenced early, as even before the Persian wars the Pythoness was alleged to have been corrupted by the Alcmaeonidae. But popular superstitions expire slowly, especially when supported by organized institutions, and by a special class interested in their maintenance. The image-makers and carvers and jewelers and silversmiths and priests, who live by the temple, will long succeed in making the multitude cry out, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." The Epicureans, in the Macedonian period, might laugh at the Delphic responses, and jeer at Apollo, the god of poetry, for composing verses far inferior to those of Homer, whom he was believed to have inspired. Indeed, the halting metres and loose composition of the oracles were among the earliest causes of the contempt into which they fell and gave as little evidence of supernatural agency as do the seances of modern spiritualists. Still, however, oracular instructions continued to be vented and vended, and were received with wondering faith by the multitude, however suspicious they might be in the estimation of the wise.
It is not easy to determine precisely the period of the actual cessation of oracles. Such uncertainty is inevitable, as they were only gradually extinguished. An old and popular tradition is that they were silenced at once by the Advent; and this opinion was employed in a very serious manner by Milton in his juvenile Hymn on the Nativity. The same statement is made in the solemn prose of Isaac Barrow in his eighteenth Sermon on the Creed: "At the appearance of Jesus and his doctrine, his (Satan's) altars were deserted, his temples fell down, his oracles were dumb, his arts were supplanted, all his worship and kingdom were quite subverted." This story of the cessation seems to have been started by Eusebius in the 4th century, and perhaps to have been adopted in a more unrestricted form than was designed by him. It is apparently connected with the fable of the death of the god Pan, and with the myth of Thammuz, which was commented on by the rabbi Maimonides. No weight, however, can be attached to the representation. The oracles had been decaying for centuries before the Christian aera, as they prolonged their existence in a more and more languishing condition for centuries after it. Cicero remarks that the Delphic shrine was no longer veracious, and declares that as long ago as the times of Pyrrhus Apollo had ceased to make verses (De Div. I, 19:37; III, 56:176). Juvenal (Sat. 6:555-6) notes the silence of the oracle of Delphi:
"Quoniam Delphis oracula cessant, Et genus humanum damnat caligo futuri."
But Juvenal's allusion is to the temporary suppression of the oracle by Nero. It was restored by Hadrian, and consulted for two hundred vears more. Plutarch, in a special inquiry into the failure of oracles (De Defectu Oraculorum) does not deny their contemporaneous existence. He says that the oracles of Boeotia were silent. He would not have particularized Boeotia if they had been extinct everywhere else. Indeed, the emperor Trajan, the contemporary and supposed patron of Plutarch, consulted the oracle at Heliopolis previous to the Parthian expedition, with little faith apparently; but he could not have consulted it at all if the oracles had become entirely mute. The story is a curious one, and exhibits the half- believing incredulity of times when old faith has withered into feeble superstition. Trajan sent his inquiry by letter to Heliopolis. The god directed the reply to be made by a sealed letter. When opened, it was found blank. Trajan's inquiry had been a blank epistle. Pausanias, in the third or fourth quarter of the 2d century, mentions that the oracle of Amphilochus at Mallus, in Cilicia, was then in the highest repute. Its superiority could not have been asserted if there had been, no others with which to compare it; yet its solitary existence would disprove the absolute extinction of oracular communications. Lucian also, in several of his spicy brochures, mentions oracles still consulted. Even after Christianity had become the religion of the empire, the belief in oracles still survived, and was not allowed to hunger altogether without gratification. The evidence is furnished by an incident recorded by Sozomen (Hist. Ecclesiastes 5:20). The Caesar Galls, in the latter part of the reign of Constantius, succeeded in crushing out the oracle of Apollo at Daphne, near Antioch, by transporting thither the relics of St. Babylas. When Julian the Apostate endeavored to revive the oracle, he was informed by it that it was silenced by the dead bodies which closed its mouth. The final extirpation of oracles and oracular cells may with great probability be ascribed to the measures of Theodosius the Great, which deprived the temples of their endowments, and withdrew from the Pagan priesthood, prophetic and unprophetic, their means of subsistence. Their mouths were closed at last, not by dead bodies, but by the want of anything to put into them. See Bayle, Dict. Hist. et Critique (Index, s.v. Oracles); Van Dale, Disputationes (1683); Moebius, Tract. Philologico Theolog. (1685); Fontenelle, Traite Historique des Dieux et des Demons du Paganisme (Delft, 1696); Baltus, Reponse a l'Histoire des Oracles of Fontenelle (1709); Hullmann. Wiirdigung des Delphischen Orakels (Bonn, 1837); Klausen, in Ersch u. Gruber's Encyklopadie, s.v. Orakel; Mitford, History of Greece; Grote, History of Greece, pt. ii, ch. 2:(G. F. H.)
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Oracles'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/o/oracles.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.