The term oracle had several meanings for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Oracles were divine responses to questions asked by human beings. Oracles were also the priests or priestesses through whom a god was believed to speak. Finally, oracles were the places—usually shrines*—where such questions and responses were exchanged. For the Greeks, oracles were the most important form of divination*. Oracles (responses) usually gave comfort to believers seeking to know if the gods favored their actions. The Greeks and Romans both had many oracles (sites). The most famous oracle in ancient Greece was located at Delphi. The oldest oracle in Greece was located at Dodona and honored the god Zeus.
The responses given were generally ambiguous, leaving the questioner to figure out the meaning. A misinterpretation of the response was never the fault of the oracle. The ancients consulted oracles on every imaginable topic. For example, pilgrims could obtain advice about the underworld by consulting the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadea.
At the Delphic oracle, pilgrims asked questions of the Pythia, the name given to the high priestess of Apollo. She then entered a trance during which the god spoke his answer through her. The words of the Pythia were then communicated to the questioner by the priests of the Pythia. Other gods, such as Gaia, Dionysus, and Hermes also had oracular shrines. Messages from the gods also came through dreams. The priest of the oracle acted as interpreter of the dream.
* shrine place that is considered sacred because of its history or the relics it contains
* divination art or practice of foretelling the future
Like the Greeks, the Romans believed it was of the utmost importance to have the favor of the gods, and they consulted many of the Greek oracles. They also visited local shrines, such as the oracle of Calchas in Apulia. There pilgrims sacrificed a black ram, slept on its fleece, and received the answers to their inquiries in dreams. Oracles were also enshrined in groves of trees. The oracle of Faunus was located in two groves outside Rome. In addition to sacrificing a sheep, pilgrims to Faunus fasted, wore simple clothing, and touched a bough of the sacred beech tree before falling asleep in the grove and receiving a divine message in a dream. People from throughout the Italian peninsula visited this oracle.
As Romans settled in the eastern provinces*, they became believers in the Greek oracles. The oracles of Apollo at Didyma and Claros, in western Asia Minor, were two notable Greek shrines that the Romans visited. No matter where oracles were located, they were besieged with ordinary questions that changed little over the centuries: Will I lose my money? Am I to be divorced from my wife? Will I be reconciled with my son? (See also Afterlife; Augur; Divinities; Omens; Ritual and Sacrifice.)
* province overseas area controlled by Rome