Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Voices of the Gods

When the people wished to know the will of the gods they inquired at places called "oracles." The most famous of these was at Delphi. There was an opening in the ground, out of which came a strange gas or vapor. Over this place a temple was built and dedicated to Apollo. A priestess lived there, and when people desired to have their fortune told she breathed the vapor, and what she said afterwards was thought to be the answer of the god. But it was hard to understand, and the priests had to explain it to the visitors. Usually it could be taken in two or three ways, so that, whatever happened, the oracle would be right.

Once the people of Athens asked what they should do in a time of great danger. The oracle told them to trust in their wooden walls. Some hurried to the ships and escaped, but others trusted in the wooden walls on the Acropolis, the citadel of Athens, and fought bravely there, only to be defeated.

This is the way in which the oracle at Delphi was discovered. Some goatherds, feeding their flocks on Mount Parnassus, found that when the animals ate near a certain place they seemed to go crazy, and ran about bleating until they fell down in a fit. The men, looking for the cause of this, found in a long, deep crack in the side of the mountain. One of them bending over and looking down breathed the vapor which came from the opening. He threw up his arms, ran among his fellow-herdsmen with a wild look on his face, and shouted out strange words which no one understood. Then he fell down weak and trembling, and could not rise for some time. His friends were frightened, and, since they could not explain the matter, they thought it must be the breath of some god that had driven him wild. It was decided at last that this god must be Apollo. A temple was built, and a priestess, call Pythoness, was appointed. She washed at the fountain of Castalia, put a laurel wreath on her head, and sat on a tripod, or three-footed chair, near the opening. Visitors asked their questions, and she answered in the name of the god.

There was an oracle of Zeus at Dodona. It is said that two black doves flew from Egypt into Greece. One alighted on an oak tree in Dodona, and said to the people, "Here shall be the oracle of the mighty Zeus. You who would know the will of the father of the gods and men come here and listen. He will speak and you shall learn."

The other dove flew to the Libyan oasis, and alighted on the roof of the temple of Jupiter, speaking the same words to the people there. After that, in both these places, the leaves of the trees whispered, and the priests explained what they said.

The oracle of Trophonius was in Bœotia. He and his brother were architects, and built a treasure-house for a king. They set a stone in one of the walls in such a way that they could move it whenever they liked, and so go in and take the money and jewels without exciting suspicion. The king was astonished to find his treasure disappearing, though all the locks were fast and the seals unbroken. He set a trap in the treasury, and the brother was caught. Trophonius could not get him out, so he cut off his brother's head and took it with him, going out by way of the secret stone. Soon after the earth opened and swallowed up the "Master-Thief," as he had been called.

A great drought fell on Bœotia, and the people went to Delphi for help. They were told to consult the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadea. No oracle was found there until one man noticed a swarm of bees flying into an opening in the ground. Following them he heard a voice that told him what he wished to know.

Those who visited that oracle had to go down a narrow passage into a cave, and only by night. Coming out they must walk backward. They were always low-spirited after such a visit, so that when any one was sad and gloomy, people said, "He must have been to the oracle or Trophonius."