In ancient times and throughout history, an oracle is a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinion. It may also be a revealed prediction or precognition of the future from deities, that is spoken through another object or life-form (e.g.: augury and auspice).
In the ancient world, many sites gained a reputation for the dispensing of oracular wisdom: they too became known as “oracles,” and the oracular utterances, called khre-smoi in Greek, were often referred to under the same name — a name derived from the Latin verb o-ra-re, to speak.
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 media between the natural and the spiritual realms. The media 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. The Dalai Lama has, according to a custom that has endured for centuries, consulted the Nechung Oracle during the new year festivities of Losar. Before fleeing from Tibet however, he consulted the oracle of Dorje Shugden.
Another oracle he consults is the Tenma oracle, for which a young Tibetan woman is the medium for the goddess. The Dalai Lama gives a complete description of the process of trance and spirit possession in his book Freedom in Exile.
Oracles were common in many civilizations of antiquity. In China, the use of oracle bones dates as far back as the Shang Dynasty, (1600–1046 BC). The I Ching, or “Book of Changes”, is a collection of linear signs used as oracles that are 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 (1046–1043 BC) 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 BC – AD 256).
The earliest known oracle was in the renowned temple of Per-Wadjet. This was an important site in the Pre-dynastic era of Ancient Egypt, which includes the cultural developments of ten thousand years from the Paleolithic to 3100 BC.
The temple was dedicated to the worship of Wadjet and may have been the source for the oracular tradition that spread to Ancient Greece from Egypt. The Per-Wadjet tradition continued through the entire history of the Ancient Egyptian culture. The later Greeks called both the goddess and the city, Buto.
The remains of the oracle temple of “Amun” at Siwa Oasis.
Another oracle of note lay in Egypt during the Eighteenth dynasty (1550–1292 BC), is a temple dedicated to Amun, a god who rose to importance during that time. The Greeks associated him with Zeus. Alexander the Great once visited it, and although no record of his query remains, the oracle is thought to have hailed him as Amun’s son, influencing his conceptions of his own divinity.
The earliest tradition of oracular practice in Hellenic culture is from the archaic period shortly after arrival of the Hellenes in their current place of settlement c. 1300 BC. The oracle was associated with the cults of deities derived from the great goddess of nature and fertility, the pre-eminent ancient oracle — the Delphic Oracle — who operated at the temple of Delphi.
Oracles were thought to be portals through which the gods spoke to man. In this sense they were different from seers (manteis in Greek) who merely interpreted signs sent by the gods through bird signs, animal entrails and other various methods.
The Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, only gave prophecies the seventh day of each month out of a nine-month working period; thus, Delphi was not the major source of divination for the ancient Greeks. Many wealthy individuals attempted to bypass the hordes of people attempting a consultation by making additional animal sacrifices to please the oracle lest their request go unanswered. As a result, seers were the main source of everyday divination.
The temple was changed to a center for the worship of Apollo during the classical period of Greece, and priests were added to the temple organization — although the tradition regarding prophecy remained unchanged. The apparently always-female priestess continued to provide the services of the oracle exclusively. It is from this institution that the English word, oracle, is derived.
The Delphic 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 Greece world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt also respected her and came to Delphi as supplicants. Croesus of Lydia consulted Delphi before attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus was told, “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” Believing the response favorable, Croesus attacked, but it was his own empire that ultimately was destroyed by the Persians.
She allegedly also proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece, to which Socrates said that, if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. After this confrontation, Socrates dedicated his life to a search for knowledge that was one of the founding events of western philosophy. This oracle’s last recorded response was given in 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I ordered pagan temples to cease operation.
Dodona is another oracle devoted to the Mother Goddess identified at other sites with Rhea or Gaia, but is here called Dione. The shrine of Dodona was the oldest Hellenic oracle, according to the fifth-century historian Herodotus and, in fact, dates to pre-Hellenic times, perhaps as early as the second millennium BC when the tradition spread from Egypt. It became the second most important oracle in ancient Greece, which later was dedicated to Zeus and to Heracles during the classical period of Greece.
During the period, in Crete lay another important oracle, sacred to Apollo. It ranked as one of the most accurate oracles in Greece.
In ancient India, the oracle was known as Akashwani, literally meaning “voice from the sky” and was related to the message of God. Oracles played key roles in many of the major incidents of the epics Mahabharat and Ramayana. An example is that Kamsa, the evil uncle of lord Krishna, was informed by an oracle that the eighth son of his sister Devaki would kill him.
In the migration myth of the Mexitin, i.e., the early Aztecs, a mummy-bundle (perhaps an effigy) carried by four priests directed the trek away from the cave of origins by giving oracles.
An oracle led to the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The Yucatec Mayas knew oracle priests or chilanes, literally ‘mouthpieces’ of the deity. Their written repositories of traditional knowledge, the Books of Chilam Balam, were all ascribed to one famous oracle priest who correctly had predicted the coming of the Spaniards and its associated disasters.
The Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria in Africa have a long tradition of using oracles. In Igbo villages, oracles were usually female priestesses to a particular deity, usually dwelling in a cave or other secluded location away from urban areas, and, much like the oracles of ancient Greece, would deliver prophecies in an ecstatic state to visitors seeking advice. Though the vast majority of Igbos today are Christian, many in Nigeria today still use oracles.
In Igboland of present-day Nigeria, many different oracles were regularly consulted. Two of these became especially famous: the Agbala Oracle at Awka and the Chukwu Oracle at Arochukwu.
In Norse mythology, Odin took the severed head of the mythical god Mimir to Asgard for consultation as an oracle. The Havamal and other sources relate the sacrifice of Odin for the oracular Runes whereby he lost an eye (external sight) and won wisdom (internal sight; insight).