11 Jun 2022

The Secret of Oracles

Posted by jofr

Oracles were sacred places to the ancient Greeks. Examples are the oracles at Dodona and Delphi. An oracle was a place of communication where divine knowledge was magically transferred to humans. The process is known as divination. Why were oracles used in some cultures, like ancient Greece and ancient China, but not in others? First of all they are ancient. In ancient China oracle bones were alread used 3000 years ago in the Shang Dynasty. The characters carved on animal bones which were used for divination are the oldest known form of Chinese writing. The Oracle of Delphi is 3400 years old. Therefore they must have a fundamental purpose.

One theory how the oracle at Delphi worked is that the priestess spoke more or less nonsense in a feverish state caused by toxic vapors and hallucinogenic gases rising from a chasm in the rocks. This legend goes back to the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. If true, this would add an element of randomness which can also be found in the Chinese method of divination.

Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has examined divination and has found that a typical feature of divination is “ostensive detachment”, which is “a demonstration that the diviners are not the authors of the statements they utter” (Boyer, 2020). The oracle of Delphi is no exception. As a National Geopgrahic article about Delphi says “people could only pose questions to the Pythia, the priestess, on the seventh day of each month [..] Pythia would go to the inner sanctum of the temple, the adytum. She would sit on a tripod, and Apollo would speak through her. Priests would stand near her and interpret her answers from the god.”

The last part is important: the anwser comes from god (i.e. in a sociological sense from the group) but it is also an interpretation of the priests. Interpretation which gives guidance in situations is a form of cultural gene expression as we have discussed earlier. The priests were able to make useful interpretations because temples were centers of knowledge where the knowledge of the time was collected in form of scripts and scrolls, or simply in form of recollected knowledge the priests had assembled over time. They got many visitors from all parts of the country and thus received “divine” knowledge from the whole collective group, which they could use in the interpretation process.

I think divination in oracles was therefore a kind of “on demand” gene expression to guide the behavior in challenging situations, as opposed to normal gene expression in religious assemblies at regular intervals in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. If a church or shabbath service is a gene expression, then an oracle reply is an “on demand” gene expression. Because there was no holy script in very ancient times which was readable for the general population, and no regular holy day in the week where priests would read the holy scripts in order to tell the people what to do, people needed a place where they could ask what to do in challenging times. They consulted the oracle to get guidance in difficult situations, when they needed information how and when to seed crops, what to do in case of family problems, how the weather will be, how to fight battles, if a war should be declared, or what the fate of the ruling family will be, and so on. In this sense oracles predated churches, synagogues, mosques and our mighty medieval cathredrals.


Pascal Boyer, “Why divination? Evolved psychology and strategic interaction in the production of truth”, in Current Anthropology, vol 61, no 1, 2020, p. 100-123

Hugo Mercier, Pascal Boyer, “Truth-making institutions: From divination, oaths, and ordeals to judicial torture and trial by jury”, Evolution and Human Behavior, 42(3) (2020) 259-267.

National Geographic:

Once sacred, the Oracle at Delphi was lost for a millennium. See how it was found.
Delphic Oracle’s Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors


Image of the scroll from Taylor Wilcox at Unslpash
Image of the temple from christian hardi on Pixabay

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