I hope you enjoyed the episode and if you haven’t listened – well you know what to do!
The promo on the episode was from the Ancient Office Hours podcast. They are on iTunes, Spotify and other platforms. You should also check out their website to learn about their archaeogaming, digital magazine, and more!
I hope my description helped but here’s a map – you can’t beat a good map!
As per the episode you can find lots of the letters in Dodonaonline – though they have been translated in French. Still – incredible work and many thanks to this great site.
A Chaniotis, Epigraphic bulletin for Greek religion (EBGR 2013).
The Historical significance of the Dodona’s tablets (Dodona the omens questions, new approaches in the oracular tablets).
D Chapinal, Oracles and sound – their importance at the sanctuary of Dodona.
C.H. Diego, Between the Oak and the Doves: Changes in the sanctuary of Dodona over the centuries.
E Eidinow, Tyxa at the oracle of Zeus, Dodona.
M. Fotiadi, Dedications at ancient Dodona.
C Laes, Children, life course and families on the lead tablets of Dodona.
J Piccinini, Renaissance or decline? The shrine of Dodona in the Hellenistic period.
E Ragousi, Of the oak and the boulder. The oracles of Dodona and Delphi.
I Katsadima, Women’s inquiries on the oracular tablets of Dodona. (Dodona the omens questions, new approaches in the oracular tablets).
O.A. Zolotnikova, The sanctuary of Zeus in Dodona: Evolution of the religious concept.
Transcription of the episode.
(There may have been a couple of changes, but this was the script I worked from).
Hi and welcome to the ancient history hound podcast, my name’s Neil and in this episode I’m looking into the oracle at Dodona. Trust me, you’re going to want to listen to this one mainly because the oracle had a lot of very personal questions which have survived and it gives a great insight into what the average person was thinking and worried about in ancient Greece. But before I get to them I’m going to discuss the history of the sanctuary and how it changed over time. But, yes, those questions. It’s worth waiting for them.
Now before I do that a couple of quick points. All of the dates unless otherwise specified are BCE, you will be able to find a set of episode notes with a transcription of this episode on ancientblogger.com and keep those reviews and ratings coming. I’ve had some crackers recently so, again, thanks for those.
In an episode with questions as a theme I’m going to begin by asking you one. Where do you think Dodona was or is? There’s no judgement here, prior to researching this podcast I was aware of it and knew something about it but putting a pin in the proverbial map was beyond me.
Naturally there is a map of Dodona on the episode notes but I’ll try to describe as best, here I go. If you think of mainland Greece your normally thinking of the southern part, the Peloponnese with Sparta and Olympia. To the northeast you have Athens and going north west you have Thebes and Delphi. For many people that’s it. Even the recent Assassin’s Creed Odyssey had Phocis, the area around Delphi as the furthest west you could travel on the mainland.
Dodona is in that part of Greece which didn’t get much attention in antiquity or in modern day gaming, it’s far to the west. In fact it’s closer to mainland Italy than it is Athens. The region it sits in was later termed Epirus and nowadays borders Albania to the north with the Adriatic coastline on its western shore. The site itself is set in foothills and approximately 800 metres above sea level and to the east of Mount Tamaros.
Though we can now place Dodona on the map it’s harder to do so on a historical timeline. Exactly when Dodona was founded is left to speculation. Possibly the middle of the 3rd millennia, so around the time the great pyramid of Giza was being built. At the other end of the speculative sliding scale a date of the early 2nd millenium is cited. Moving through the 2nd millennia finds at the site indicate a possible Mycenean involvement with axe heads and spear points. It’s assumed that the original deity worshipped here was some form of mother goddess with the oak tree, the one constant, acting as a focal point.
After the 8th century things change with tripods, figurines of athletes, warriors and animals appearing along with bronze jugs. It’s at this point, still in the archaic period, where Zeus is referred to as the main deity at the site and we begin to have textual evidence surviving which gives us more insight and I’ll pick up on later The mother goddess hadn’t been replaced, rather adopted into the form of Dione the titan who in one myth was the mother of Aphrodite.
And gain, before I go further this isn’t unusual. The story of that other great oracle, the one at Delphi incorporated founding myths where Apollo takes over the site from a previous cult by defeating a dragon or serpent there. When I pick up with the mythic backstory of Dodona this theme or reclaiming or taking over a site will appear again.
In the 5th century or possibly the early 4th century the first known building appears at the sanctuary. It wasn’t particularly overwhelming, it was a naiskos, or small temple measuring 4 metres by 6.5 and it stood near to the oak tree. A wall was built later on in the 4th century enclosing the tree and the naiskos and this was enlargened in the 3rd century. It was in this century that the sanctuary saw drastic changes and initially because of an individual you may have heard of, Pyrrhus.
Here’s someone who often flies under the radar, he was hailed as one of the great generals of antiquity and fought Rome in southern Italy and Carthage on Sicily. He was the first to introduce war elephants to the central Mediterranean and in fact the Carthaginians picked up on the idea when fighting against him.
In the early 3rd century Pyrrhus oversaw the renovation of the temple of Zeus to something a bit more impressive. He also added temples to Herakles, Themis and Aphrodite. And then there were administrative buildings as well as a theatre. Part of this was down to how Epirus as a region had developed and so Dodona became a political centre for it. It was something of a latecomer in this regard. Where the other regions around Greece had city states and had developed centuries before Epirus hadn’t been a cohesive political entity. It was now.
The sanctuary was sacked in 219 and to give some perspective it was around this time that a young General called Hannibal was planning his march on Rome. But it was restored with a brand new stadium and temple of Dione.
Unfortunately Rome happened and in 168 Greece was under Roman rule and Dodona suffered. Though it crept along the final coup-de-grace was given by the now Christian Roman emperor Theodosius in the 4th century CE. He banned pagan temples and cut down the famous oak tree.
Even if you take the more conservative estimates of Dodona as starting around 1800 it was a site which people travelled to for over two thousand years. The archaeology can tell us something about it and especially the records of those questions I’ll come to later. But we know more about Dodona from the surviving literary references which start in the archaic period and in Homer.
In the Iliad Achilles sits in his tent and thinks of his soldiers and Patroclus who will soon be fighting without him. He pours a libation to Zeus and I quote:
“Zeus of Dodona, god of Pelasgians, O god whose home lies far! Ruler of wintry harsh Dodona! Your interpreters, the Selli, live with feet like roots, unwashed and sleep on the hard ground” End quote.
The appeal to Zeus continues and centres on Patroclus both fighting well and returning safely. Homer commented that Zeus heard the libation and granted one wish, but not the other. As you may know Patroclus fought well but failed to return. And this is a central element to the myth of Troy and certainly the poem.
Appealing to the Zeus of Dodona at such an important moment suggests that this was a known about and important place. There’s also other details mentioned about Dodona, it was cold and what about the Selli who slept on the ground and had unwashed feet?
In the Odyssey the hero Odysseus finds himself back at Ithaca. He’s yet to reveal himself and is being hosted by Eumaeus. When the swineherd asks who he is Odysseus comes up with an entire backstory but also included how he had heard that Odysseus had gone to Dodona and I quote “to learn the will of Zeus from the great oak tree that is sacred to the god” endquote. This detail was repeated later when Odysseus, again in disguise, spoke to Penelope.
More details about how the oracle functioned and even how it all started are given by the 5th century historian Herodotus. In his work Histories Herodotus dug into how it all came to be and did so by speaking with priests in Egypt and at Dodona. You might wonder why Egypt? Well, according to the priests at Thebes in Egypt two women were carried off by Phoenecians. One was sold in Libya and the other Greece and both founded oracles there.
The Greek oracle was Dodona and the Libyan oracle was the one at Ammon which Alexander the great famously visited.
Herodotus also spoke to the priests at Dodona and I quote
“At Dodona, however, the priestesses who deliver the oracles have a different version of the story: two black doves they say, flew away from Thebes in Egypt, and one of them alighted at Dodona, the other in Libya. The former perched on an oak and speaking with a human voice, told them that there, on that very spot, should be an oracle of Zeus. Those who heard her understood the words to be a command from heaven and at once obeyed”.
Herodotus finished by summarising his thoughts on it all, to him the doves were actually priestesses from Egypt who had come to the region and established an oracle in the form that they had previously done. In fact Herodotus continues by explaining how the Greeks were instructed in much of their religious practices by the Egyptians.
The idea that strangers from overseas could have a big influence on the Greeks isn’t anything new and in fact is probably something which is understated. Early greek sculpture particularly the kore, those upright figures, are very reminiscent of Egyptian art. And then there are wider influences, I think I have spoken about the alphabet from Phoenicia in the episode on Thebes. And why we are at it a whole foundation myth of Thebes involved an overseas figure establishing a city in mainland Greece. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s also worth noting here is that even by the time of Herodotus, the age of Classical Athens, the oracle was considered old. I know that this is something which isn’t always thought about but here you have it, people in the Classical Period considering what was to them old history.
Herodotus wasn’t the only writer in Classical Greece to mention the Oracle, there were the playwrights. The talking oak is referred to by Aeschylus and Sophocles, in fact the latter has Prometheus mention ‘talking oaks’ so not just one and as for who worked there Sophocles has both the male Selli and priestesses in place. However, a fragment of Euripides reads “at the holy site of Dodona near the sacred oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquiries from Greece”.
Add to this that Herodotus only mentioned priestesses, even naming them, and it seems that it was an oracle where women were in charge. The difficulty with plays is that they are inherently set in the past and perhaps Sophocles’ inclusion of the Selli is just that. A constant we do have is that Zeus was the main deity here and that he was linked to it through the oak tree.
But this can be called into question and I briefly mentioned this earlier. Scholars have argued about Zeus being a latecomer to Dodona, perhaps only a few centuries old by the time of Herodotus, which is still old but prior to Zeus the sanctuary belonged to a mother goddes deity and that the tree was bound some way in her worship. This is by no means anything unusual, as I also mentioned earlier the other great oracle of Greece, the one at Delphi had foundation myths which involve Apollo taking over the site and symbolically defeating a dragon there. This has also been seen as the worship of one deity supplanting another. Perhaps this is echoed in the awkward nature of the Selli, the unwashed feet and sleeping on the ground were features which bound them to the soil of the oak tree. And by default to the worship of the great goddess. It’s plausible that they had been part of this and later overtaken by the priestesses when Zeus came to the fore.
A key facet of the sanctuary, the oak tree was now firmly tied to Zeus, though Zeus was often referred to here as Zeus Naios which has been interpreted as both dweller and ‘water flowing’. There are arguments which link Zeus of the flowing water to the river god Archeloos. The great goddess figure was rehashed as Dione, a Titan who was mother to Aphrodite is less ouch-I-need to-cross-my—legs myth of her birth.
All of this speaks to the, and I do the airquotes thing here, religion, of ancient Greece. And I use airquotes as the word religion conveys a number of elements which aren’t present in how the ancient Greeks related to their gods. There was no central text, no organised priesthood and no singular way of doing it all. Depending on where you were there may be a local hero who was worshipped or a deity in a manner which was unique to that place. After all Zeus wasn’t just Zeus here, he was Dodonian Zeus or Zeus Naois and that was tied to a location.
To recap then we have a form of Zeus acting as an oracle, as well as Dione, at Dodona by the Classical Period. So how did it all work? So far we’ve had hints that birds were involved which would not be unusual, using birds for divination, particularly how they flew was popular. Though talking trees, that’s something else.
Before I get to it here’s a few words from the Ancient Office Hours podcast.
Thanks for that – you can also find them at the ozymandiasproject.com – definitely worth checking out.
Now, back to that conversant oak tree.
Observing how the doves moved within in the tree or around it is plausible, but for the tree talking, well, perhaps we shouldn’t take that too literally. One theory is that the leaves rustled in the wind and this was how it spoke. But there was also the involvement of cauldrons placed around the tree and these made a noise from being hit in some way. But the development of the site does cause a problem here. That wall which was built would have prevented these, but contrastingly they may have helped amplify noise from a single cauldron through echoing. And trust me, as someone who podcasts from home I can testify to how annoying walls are when it comes to echoes.
We get an idea of how that single cauldron was hit from Strabo. In the 1st century Strabo described a statue which stood above the cauldron or what he described as a copper vessel. The statue was of a man holding a working whip. This was made of chains and had bones attached to it – when it struck the copper vessel it made a sound. Strabo added that you could count to 400 whilst the vessel chimed.
However accurate this account was there’s nothing which completely describes the process and dates to the classical period and up to the 2nd century. It’s possible that sounds and augury was used as well as other methods. It’s frustrating that we don’t know more about how it all worked but this outweighed by what Dodona does tell us. From the 6th to the 2nd centuries many thousands of people visited the site and asked questions. These were inscribed on small thin sheets of lead and left at the site and are often referred to as the tablets though these weren’t the big stone variety you might be thinking of. Currently we have just over 4,000 of them, though the majority are either illegible or contain too few words to make anything substantial from them.
These lead sheets or tablets offer us that rare opportunity as you’ll hear they give us an idea of what was bugging people in ancient Greece and even when we don’t have the question there are still things we can learn, such as a particular spelling of a word which may indicate the area of Greece the person came from. So I’m going to finish up by talking through some – from the wider themes to the specifics and elaborating on how the question and answer process worked. I need to give a special call out to the work done on this and in my readling list you’ll want to head to the pieces cited by Katsadmia, Chaniotis and Laes in the episode notes reading list section. I was also able to access many at dodonaonline.com though be warned, the translation is from ancient Greek to French. Bit of extra work there.
Let’s start with Epilytos, he had travelled to the oracle, probably from southern Italy in the middle of the 4th century. His question was actually a few bundled togther and I’ll read it – just so you know the tablet did include an error which I’ve kept in, just in case you wonder.
God and good fortune. Epilytos asks Zeus Naois and Diona by doing what and offering to whom of the gods he would succeed in life. Also whether I should perform the trade in which I was educated, or start something different. Whether I shall shine in whatever he attempts to to. And whether I should take Phainomena as my wife, or another woman. And whether I should take a wife or remain as I am?
The questions asked here are a good thematic aggregation of common ones asked. Let’s take the career advice Epilytos is after. This appears a number of times for example, should someone change careers and become a horse-breeder, whatabout when I pay off my debts, should I stop being a butcher? Specific commercial questions come into play, around 375 a trader wanted to know if he should sell wine in Carthage. Another if he should get into the copper market.
Personal financial queries might relate to lending money or investing in a house. Failing that giving it all up to try something very new. Perhaps this challenges the idea that people were static in their careers in ancient Greece. The small insight we get from Dodona suggests people were at least thinking of making big changes in their lives. A standout example is a tablet dating to the early 3rd century which asks Zeus Naios and Dione whether it’s a good idea to join Pyrrhus on campain. Perhaps this person went on to fight in Italy and Sicily, or perhaps not.
And then there’s the personal, let’s call it, relationship advice. Tied up along with career uncertainty it seems that Epilytos has incorporated the narrative outline of many a rom-com and tv series. Epilytos in Paris, nah, perhaps not.
Concerns over relationships were often allied to an overarching theme – will my marriage lead to children. And it wasn’t just men asking about this. Take Kleunika – she asked if she would be able to have children from another husband. She wasn’t alone, Plaurata queried whether she should have intercourse with Plator, son of Karpon, in order to secure children for herself. You might be surprised that women were asking questions, but religious observance which is what this was often gave women a space where they could act on their own or at least with some agency. Aristonikka, Aristobia, Eugaria, Euresia, Phaenomena, Gorgo, Kliareta, Lampito, Nessaia, Pelopis, Phaenne, Philantha, Sophia, Valla all consulted the oracle as their names are present on the tablets, but we sadly don’t know what they were asking.
The topic of children was popular as you may expect and it wasn’t always whether you might become a parent. It could also be who was one.
Take these two instances “Does the child belong to Alexander, son of Neoptolemos”, “Lysanias asks Zeus Naios and Dione whether the child Annyla bears is not his?”.
Another query gives a further slant on who the daddy was, the question reads “whether the child that Tata is carrying is from Amphinoos” – and it’s been argued that Tata was actually a slave. We have a tablet which seeks to understand the best course of action from the other side of a scenario where a man had gotten a slave pregnant. The slave in question is named as Korydalla and the clarification needed is whether he (presumably the father) will succeed in buying them. Presumably the children, as well as Korydalla, were the property of another man and perhaps in this scenario the idea was to buy her and the children and possibly free them. I hope so.
On the subject of slaves one tablet is quite touching. It dates to the late 6th century and reads
“Zeus Naios and Diona, which god is it best to approach and will I ever be free?”. Another, dating to the 4th century is from a slave who wants to know whether, following his emancipation, he could still stay with his master.
This might surprise, it invites us to consider how being freed may come with some challenges. Perhaps in this instance the slave and master had a relationship which the slave thought might be beneficial following his new status. Ex slaves forming a relationship with their master wasn’t unheard of in antiquity.
The health of children, and general health was a theme much as it is today. Given the rates of infant mortality asking whether a newborn will survive seems more than reasonable though there were also specific queries, for example will my child ever make a sound?
In the realm of health one body part appeared more than you might think. The eyes. This isn’t much of a surprise, eye infections and afflictions were very common in antiquity and tablets not only ask whether to use a different ointment but which hero was best to sacrifice to and even whether the ocular disease came from a goddess. Working out whether something originated from the divine or not was picked up in a third century tablet where Agatharchos asks if he should leave the cure to the gods or the doctors and this has been cited as an early phenomenon where cures were segregated between the realm of the mortal and the divine.
On the subject of mortals and healing, doctors are mentioned. Two mid 5th century tablets include the name of a healer called Paiania and one even suggested that she healed using her hands to cure the issue, in this case an abcess.
The format of the question was often asking Zeus Naios and Dione and then the question itself. But there are also features of the question which point to cleromancy being used. This was divination by lot and two features are cited as proof of this. The first is easier to describe, namely the words ‘pick me’ being written in with the question. The second is, well, I’ll let you spot it.
“Kleokritas and Amphimedon submit this enquiry to Zeus Naios. Did Sindon not steal the flowers?”.
You might expect the question to be “Did Sindon steal the flowers?” rather than “not steal the flowers” – it’s argued that this was due to both versions of the question being submitted with the hope that one was chosen to be answered.
We don’t know whether Sindon was indeed the flower thief but here are some more general questions, and I reckon there’s a few which resonate today. I won’t do the begin end quote thing I’ll just read them as a list.
“God. Good fortune. Is Philotis the rightful owner of the iron objects?”
“Does Agias share knowledge concerning the bowl of Poseidon?”
“Melantas. Did he steal the money?”
“About the wheat that disappeared, did someone steal it?”
“Did he use a magical potion against my offspring or against my wife or against me, from Lyson”
“Were Mirion and Euthydamnos and (name unclear) privy to the theft of the pigs committed by Charinos?”
“Did Dorkilos steal the garment?”
“Will I be happy living with Asandros?”
“Do I have to return the money to Nikias in the present circumstances?”
“God. Good fortune. About our brother, is there something else shameful coming?”
There’s a lot of confidential content here, or at least stuff you may not want people to hear being asked. Well, there’s an argument which I think is a brilliant insight into this. It works on the premise that many tablets were folded and had a single name or mark on them. We might imagine the priestess pulling out a tablet calling out the mark, rather than reading the question aloud, and giving the answer. And on the topic of answers a few have survived. Here are some:
“you are not pure”
“it is better to wait”
“you will be saved”
“he will be able”
And “yes, it is possible”. This sounds more like a politican’s answer than a priestess but there you go.
The tablets give us a wealth of information and not just from what’s written. Due to the nature of what survived, and what was ever put down to survive in the first place, the thoughts of the average person aren’t easy to find. Dodona is a curious mix, there’s much we don’t know for example the basic function of it. True we can speculate, but as yet there’s not a great weight of evidence and given the duration of the site there was a changing method of divination over time. So, any one of those methods may have been right and then it stopped and something else replaced it.
But then there are the tablets, the slivers of lead which held the wishes and concerns of people who’d travelled there. From slaves, from women and concerning a range of queries – many of which I think are variations of what we think about today. It’s a very special thing.
And there I will leave it – just remember to check out ancientblogger.com for the episode notes, transcription and reading list of the works I’ve used in the research. If you can leave a review please do and till the next time take care and keep safe.