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(oraculum; orare, to speak).

A Divine communication given at a special place through specially appointed persons; also the place itself. This form of divination was found among various peoples of the ancient world.

Babylon and Assyria

Extremely ancient texts present the oracle-priest [baru, 'he who sees': bira baru, 'to see a sight'; hence, to give an oracle, divine the future. Cf. Samuel, I Sam., ix, 9; I Chr., ix, 22 etc.; of Hanani, II Chr., xvi, 7, 10; cf. Isaiah 28:7 and 30:10] alongside of the ashipu (whose role is incantation, conjuration) as officer of one of the two main divisions of the sacerdotal caste. He is the special servant of Shamash and Adad; his office is hereditary (cf. the "sons of Aaron", "of Zadok"); blemish of person or pedigree (cf. Leviticus 21:23) disqualifies him; he forms part of a college. Lengthy initiation, elaborate ritual, prepare him for the reception, or exercise, of the barutu. He rises before dawn, bathes, anoints himself with perfumed oil, puts on sacred vestments [cf. Exodus 30:17, 23; Lev., xvi, 4. Lagrange "Études sur les religions sémitiques" (Paris, 1905), 236, n. 1; and "Rev.Bibl.", VIII (1899), 473; also Ancessi, "L'Égypte et Moïse", pt. i (1875); Les vêtements du Grand-Prêtre, c. iii, plate 3. Is the blood-red, jeweled Babylonian scapular the analogate to the Hebrew ephod and pectoral?]. After a preliminary sacrifice (usually of a lamb: but this, as those of expiation and thanksgiving, we cannot, in our limits, detail), he escorts the inquirer to the presence of the gods, and sits on the seat of judgment; Shamash and Adad, the great gods of oracle, lords of decision, come to him and give him an unfailing answer [tertu, presage: Divine teaching. There is no likely borrowing or adaptation of Babylonian oracle-words by the Hebrews (Lagrange, op. cit., 234, n. 8)]. All the customary modes of divination (interpretation of dreams, of stars, monstrosities, of signs in oil, the liver etc.) culminated in oracles; but an enormous literature of precedents and principles left little initiative to a baru whose memory was good. We may add a characteristic example of oracle style (about 680 B.C.).

O Shamash, great lord, to my demand in thy faithful favor, deign to answer! Between this day, the 3rd day of this month, the month of Aru, until the 11th day of the month of Abu of this year, within these hundred days and these hundred nights . . . within this fixed space of time will Kashtariti with his troops, or the troops of the Cimmerians . . . or all other enemy, succeed in their designs? By assault, by force . . . by starvation, by the names of the god and goddess, by parley and amicable conference, or by any other method and stratagem of siege, shall they take the town of Kishassu? shall they enter the walls of this town of Kishassu? . . . shall it fall into their hands? Thy great godhead knoweth it. Is the taking of this town of Kishassu, by whatsoever enemy it be, from this day unto the [last] day appointed, ordained and decreed by the order and mandate of thy great godhead, O Shamash, great Lord? Shall we see it? Shall we hear it? etc.

Observe the preoccupation of leaving the god no avenue of elusion—every possible contingency is named.

Among the nomad Arabs the priest is primarily a giver of oracles (by means of arrow-shafts, cf. Ezekiel 21:21). But since in Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Ethiopian Kohen means priest, and cannot be etymologically connected with "divination", we must conclude (Lagrange, op. cit., 218) that the Arabian oracle-monger is a degenerate priest, not (Wellhausen) that all Semitic priests were aboriginally oracle-mongers.

The Hebrews

Oracles were vouchsafed to the Hebrews by means of the Urim and Thummim, which are to be connected with the Ephod. The Ephod was (i) a linen dress worn in ritual circumstances (by priests, 1 Samuel 22:18, the child Samuel, 1 Samuel 2:18; David, 2 Samuel 6:14); (ii) 'the' ephod, described in Exodus 28, peculiar to the high-priest; over it was worn the pectoral containing Urim and Thummim; (iii) an idolatrous, oracular image, connected with the Teraphim (also oracular); that which Gideon erected weighed 1700 sikels of gold (Judges 8:27; 17:5; 18:14, 20; Hosea 3:4 etc.). But why was this image called an ephod (a dress)? In Isaiah 30:22, the Hebrew referring to the silver overlaying of idols, is parallel to the word for their golden sheath. If then the Israelites were already familiar with an oracle operating in close connection with a jeweled ephod, it will have been easy to transfer this name to a richly plated oracular image. See van Hoonacker, "Sacerdoce levitique" (Louvain, 1899), 372.

The law directs (Numbers 17:18) that the leader of the people shall stand before the priest, and proffer his request: the priest shall "inquire for him by the judgment of Urim and Thummim before Yahweh". The priest alone [for the Ahi.-jah of 1 Samuel 14:3, 18, is the Ahi.-melek of 21:1; 22:9, with the Divine name corrected] carries the ephod before Israel, and inquires on behalf of the chief alone (for Ahimelek, 1 Samuel 22:13-15, denies having inquired for David while Saul still is king: see van Hoonacker op. Cit., 376). Thus history would agree with the Law as to the unity of the oracle, and its exclusive use by priest and prince.

Josephus thought the Urim and Thummim were stones of changing lustre. The meaning of the names is unknown. Though they seem to have been used for sacred lots, and though I Sam., xiv, 37 sqq. (especially in LXX) makes it fairly clear that they gave answer by Yes and No (in I Sam., xxiii, 2, 4, 11, 12; xxx, 8, the long phrasing is priestly commentary), and though I Sam., xiv, 42 (if indeed this still refers to the oracle and not to a private ordeal offered by Saul to, and rejected by, the people) by using the [Greek] word ballete, "throw (between me and Jonathan)", suggests a casting of lots, yet the U and T were not mere pebbles (e.g. black and white), for besides answering Yes and No they could refuse answer altogether. This happened when the inquirer was ritually unclean (so Saul, in the person of his son, 1 Samuel 14:37; cf. the exclusion from the new-moon meal, 1 Samuel 20:26; sexual intercourse precludes from eating sacred bread, 1 Samuel 21:4).

Observe the lack, in Yahweh's oracle, of the magical element, and extreme complication, which disfigure those quoted in I. Notice, too, how Hebrew priest and prince alike submit unquestioningly to the Divine communication. The prince does not dare to seek to cajole or terrify the priest; nor the priest to distort or invent the answer. Finally, when once the era of the great prophets opens, it is through them God manifests His will; the use of the ephod ceases; the Urim and Thummim are silent and ultimately lost.

Greece and Rome

["Oraculum: qund inest in his deorum oratio", Cic., "Top.", xx, "Voluntas divina hominis ore enuntiata", Senec., "Controv.", I. prf. Manteion: MA as in mainomai, mens. The mantis was the mouthpiece, the prophetes, the interpreter of the oracle (so already Plato, "Tim", lxxii, B). chresterion: chrao, "furnish what is needful"; hence (active), to give (middle), to consult an oracle].

Oracles in the familiar sense flourished best in Greek or hellenized areas, though even here the ecstatic element probably came, as a rule, from the East. The local element, however (for Hellenic oracles essentially localize divination), and the practice of interpreting divine voices as heard in wind, or tree, or water (pheme theon; ossa, omphe Dios—Zeus was panompsaios cf. the Italian fauni, karmentes) were rooted in Greek or pre-Greek religion. An enormous history lies behind the oracles of "classical" times. Thus at Delphi the stratification of cults shows us, undermost, the prehistoric, chthonian worship of the pre-Achaeans: Gaia (followed by, or identical with, "Themis"?) and the impersonal nymphs are the earliest tenants of the famous chasm and the spring Kassotis. Dionysos, from orgiast Thrace, or, as was then held, from the mystic East, invaded the shrine, importing, or at least accentuating, elements of enthusiasm and religious delirium; for the immense development and Orphic reformation of his cult, in the seventh century, can but have modified, not introduced, his worship. Apollo, disembarking with the Achaeans on the Krisean shore, strives to oust him, and, though but sharing the year's worship and the temple with his predecessors, eclipses what he cannot destroy. Echoes of this savage fight, this stubborn resistance of the dim, old-fashioned worship to the brilliant new-comer, reach us in hymn and drama, are glossed by the devout Aeschylus (Eumen. prol.), and accentuated by the rationalist Euripides (Ion etc.); vase paintings picture the ultimate reconciliation. For, in the end, a compromise is effected: the priestess still sits by the cleft, drinks of the spring, still utters the frantic inarticulate cries of ecstasy; but the prophets of the rhythmic Apollo discipline her ravings into hexameters, and thus the will of Zeus, through the inspiration of Apollo, is uttered by the pythoness to all Greece.

Apollo was the cause at once of the glory and the downfall of Delphi. Partly in reaction against him, partly in imitation of him, other oracles were restored or created. In our brief limits we cannot describe or even enumerate these. We may mention the extremely ancient oracle of Dodona, where the spirit. Of Zeus (ho tou Dios semainei—the oracles began) spoke to the priestesses in the oak, the echoing bronze, the waterfall; the underground Trophonius oracle in Lebadaea, with its violent and extraordinary ritual (Paus., IX, 39, 11: Plut., "Gen. Socr.", 22); and the incubation oracles of Asklepios, where the sleeping sick awaited the epiphany of the hero, and miraculous cure. Thousands of votive models of healed wounds and straightened limbs are unearthed in these shrines; and at Dodona, leaden tablets inquire after a vanished blanket, whether it be lost or stolen; or by prayer to what god or hero faction-rent Corcyra may find peace. Other especially famous oracles were those of Apollo at Abae, Delos, Patara, Claros; of Poseidon at Ouchestos; of Zeus at Olympia; of Amphiraos at Thebes and Oropos; about a hundred of Asklepios are known. Most were established by a source, many near a mephitic chasm or grotto. Usually the clients would stand in a large vestibule, or chresmographion, from which they could see the naos or shrine, with the god's statue. In the centre, usually at a lower level, was the adyton, where the spring, chasm, tripod, and laurel bushes were seen. Here the prophetess received the divine inspiration. Nearly all the oracles were administered by a group of officials, originally, no doubt, members of some privileged family. At Delphi, the saints (osioi); at Miletus, the Branchidai and Euangelidai, etc. These usually elected the staff of resident priests, the schools of prophets (at the oracle of Zeus Ammon, e.g., under an arch-prophet), and even, at times, the pythoness. At Delphi, the priests elected her from the neighbourhood: she was to be over fifty (so, on account of a scandalous incident), and quite ignorant. Her guidance was not to be too positive!

In its best days, the Delphic oracle exercised an enormous influence: its staff was international and highly expert; gold flowed in unceasing streams into its treasury, free access to it was guaranteed to pilgrims even in time of war. In constitutional and colonial history, in social and religious crises, in things artistic as in matters of finance, its intervention was constant and final. Had it realized its own position, its work of unification, whether as regards religion or politics in Hellas, might have been unlimited. Like all human things, it but half-saw its ideal (human as that ideal could at best have been) and but half-realized what it saw. Easily corrupted by the gold and prayers of kings, the centre of Asiatic and African, no less than of European intrigues, it became an end to itself. At the time of the Persian War it sacrificed Athens and imperilled all Western civilization. It was responsible for more than one war. It drained the colonies of their revenues. It gradually set against itself the indignant rivalries of the local cults of Greece. No moral or religious instruction can be accredited to it. Thus, while formidable enemies were ranged against it at home, the conquests of Alexander dimmed national glories, and opened the gates to far more fascinating cults. The prophecies based upon the rigid data of astrology supplanted the Pythian ravings; Plutarch relates the decay and silencing of the oracles (De defect. orac.). In Rome diviners and astrologers, always suspected, had long found legislation active against them. The Sibylline books, huge records of oracles ceaselessly interpolated by each new philosophy, by Jewish and even Christian apocalyptic prophecy, had been famous by the side of indigenous oracles, the carmina Marciana, for example: yet as early as 213 B.C. the Senate began its confiscations; Augustus made an auto-da-fé of over 2000 volumes; Tiberius, more scrupulous, expurgated the rest. Constant enactments proved vain against the riot of superstition in which the empire was collapsing; the sanest emperors were themselves adepts; Marcus Aurelius consulted the miserable charlatan Alexander, with his snake-oracle at Abonoteichos. Christianity alone could conquer the old homes of revelation. Constantine stripped Delphi and Dodona, and closed Aegae and Aphaka; Julian tried to re-awake the stammering, failing voices; but under Theodosius the repression is complete, and henceforward the oracles are dumb. (See DIVINATION.)


BABYLON AND ASSYRIA: JASTROW, Die Relgion Babyloniens u. Assyriens. (Giessen, 1906), xix, and in HASTINGS, Dict. of the Bible extra vol. (London, 1904), 556-63; KNUDTZON, Assyrischc Gebete a. d. Sonnengott (Leipzig, 1893); DHORME, Choix de textes (Paris, 1907), xxxvi, 382; Relig, assyro.-babylonienne (Paris, 1910), 203, 291 etc.
THE HEBREWS: DHORME, Les livres de Samuel (Paris, 1910); LAGRANGE. Le livre des Juges (Paris, 1903) ad loce. HASTINGS, Dict. of the Bible, extra vol. (London, 1904), 641a, 662b etc.
GREECE AND ROME; cf. especially BOUCHE-LECLERCQ, Hist. de la divination dans l'antiquite (Paris, 1879-82), and DAREMBERG AND SAGLIO, s.v. Divination; MONCEAU, ibid., s.v. Oraculum; COUGNY, Anthol. Graec., append. (Paris, 1890), 464 533 for relics of verse oracles; BOISSIER, Fin du paganisme, 11. On Sibylline literature: WOLFF. De novissima oraculorum aetate (Berlin, 1854); Porphyrii de Philosophia e ex oraculis haurienda librorum reiquiae (Berlin, 1856); HENCLESS, Oracula graeca (Halle, 1877); ROUSE, Greek Votive Offerings (Cambridge, 1902); FARNELL, Cults of the Greek States IV, 181 sqq., 1907; MYERS in Hellemica (London, 1880, 426-92.

About this page

APA citation. Martindale, C.C. (1911). Oracle. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Martindale, Cyril Charles. "Oracle." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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