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For alternate usages of "Oracle", see Oracle (disambiguation)

An Oracle is a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinion; an infallible authority, usually spiritual in nature. In the ancient world many sites gained a reputation for the dispensing of oracular wisdom: they too became known as "oracles," as did the oracular utterances themselves, whose very name is derived from the Latin verb orare, to speak.

Oracles were common in many civilizations of antiquity. In China, the use of oracle bones dates as far back as the Shang Dynasty, (1600 BCE - 1046 BCE). The I Ching, or "Book of Changes," is a collection of linear signs used as oracles that dates from that period. Although divination with the I Ching is thought to have originated prior to the Shang Dynasty, it was not until King Wu of Zhou (1046 BCE-1043 BCE) that it took its present form. In addition to its oracular power, the I Ching has had a major influence on the philosophy, literature and statecraft of China from the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE - 256 BCE).

In classical Greece, the pre-eminent oracle – the Sibyl (or Pythia) – operated at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This oracle exerted considerable influence throughout Hellenic culture; the Greeks consulted her prior to all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, and so forth. The semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Macedonia, Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt also respected her. Croesus of Lydia consulted Delphi before attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus was told, "If you do, you will destroy a great empire." Believing the response favorable, Croesus attacked, but it was his own empire that was ultimately destroyed by the Persians.

The oracle also allegedly proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in Greece, to which Socrates said that if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. In the 3rd century, the oracle (perhaps bribed) declared that the god would no longer speak there.

Dodona became the second most important oracle in ancient Greece, dedicated to Zeus, Heracles and Dione.

On Crete lay another important oracle, sacred to Apollo. It ranked as one of the most accurate oracles in Greece.

Another oracle of note lay in Egypt, in a temple dedicated to Ammon, whom the Greeks associated with Zeus. Alexander the Great once visited it, and though no record of his query remains, the oracle is thought to have hailed him as Ammon's son, influencing his conceptions of his own divinity.

In Norse mythology, Odin took the severed head of the god Mimir to Asgard for consultation as an oracle.

In Tibet, oracles have played, and continue to play, an important part in religion and government. The word "oracle" is used by Tibetans to refer to the spirit that enters those men and women who act as mediums between the natural and the spiritual realms. The mediums are, therefore, known as kuten, which literally means, "the physical basis." The Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in northern India, still consults an oracle known as the Nechung Oracle, which is considered the official state oracle of the government of Tibet. He gives a complete description of the process of trance and possession in his book Freedom in Exile [1].

Further reading

  • Curnow, T. 1995. The Oracles of the Ancient World: A Comprehensive Guide. London: Duckworth ISBN 0715631942
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. 1976. Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Fontenrose, J. 1981. The Delphic Oracle. Its responses and operations with a catalogue of responses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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