The oracle at Dodona was considered the oldest in Greece, even if it was later replaced in importance by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. According to Herodotus (Histories 2.57) the oracle was founded when two black doves flew from Thebes in Egypt; one dove settled in Libya to found the sanctuary of Zeus Ammon, and the other settled in an oak tree at Dodona, proclaiming a sanctuary to Zeus be built there.
In Greek mythology the oracle was visited by notable heroes, such as Jason, who was told by Hera to place a protective branch from the sacred oak tree on the prow of his ship the Argo before he set off on his search for the Golden Fleece. In Homer’s Iliad Achilles, too, called on the help of Zeus Dodonean during the Trojan War in order to protect Patroclus in his fight against Hektor. In the Odyssey the hero Odysseus also consults the oracle to discover if he should return to Ithaca as himself or in disguise. Historical figures who are known to have consulted the oracle include Agesilaus, king of Sparta, and the Roman emperor Julian.
Traditionally Zeus answered questions from pilgrims via the rustling of leaves or doves (Peleiades) in his sacred oak tree which was encircled with bronze tripod cauldrons (fragments of which survive). The bronze tripods all touched and so could create a circle of sound which rang continuously, both protecting the site from evil and providing another source of Zeus’ communication with humanity. Amongst the Greeks, the ringing sound the tripods produced gave rise to the expression a "Dodonian chatterbox". From the 4th century BCE, a small temple (Hiera Oikia) was constructed next to the tree, and a wall with a southern entrance was built to encircle the oak tree, replacing the ring of bronze tripods. A bronze statue of a boy holding three chains of knuckle bones was set up by admirers from Corcyra, and when the wind blew, the chains knocked against a cauldron so that the tree maintained its protective ringing. In the 218 BCE re-building programme, the Hiera Oikia was extended, with a colonnaded courtyard and monumental entrance added.
The sanctuary was maintained by an order of priests known as the Selli (or Helli) who were known to sleep on the ground and had unwashed feet so that they might more directly draw their power from the earth. From the 5th century BCE, three priestesses guarded the oracle, later to be known as the three "Doves", and who interpreted and passed on the god’s responses in a state of trance, as at Delphi. These priestesses are named by Herodotus as Promeneia, Timarete, and Nicandre. Unlike at Delphi, where the oracle was often consulted on important matters of state, the oracle at Dodona was typically used to settle more private matters. Believers would write their question on a tablet and receive a simple yes or no in response.
Written by Mark Cartwright, published on 08 January 2015 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike