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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites
A city situated S of Lake Pambotis at the foot of Mt. Tomaros (mod.
Olytsikas), 22 km S of Jannina. It was famed for its Sanctuary and its Oracle
of Zeus which was greatly Venerated, even more than that of Apollo at Delphi,
which finally took its place. Homer's heroes knew this oracle and its god. Thus
Achilles prays to Zeus when he wishes to see Patroklos intervene in his stead
and drive the Trojans from the ships (Il. 16.233). He speaks of the Selli, the
prophets of Zeus, who have unwashed feet and sleep on the ground. In the Odyssey
(14.327) Odysseus is described as having gone to Dodona to consult the priests
of Zeus who interpret the sound the wind makes in the leaves of Zeus's great oak
tree. In the historic period Herodotos went to Dodona (2.52) and recalls that
the oracle at Dodona is held to be the most ancient in Greece. The cult of Zeus
goes back to a period before Late Helladic III, about 1200. It may have been preceded
by a goddess cult, as elsewhere in Greece (Ge?). Later, in the 8th c. we find
a cult of Zeus and Dione, a female paredros. Pausanias (10.12.10) talks about
a chtonian goddess and, while making it quite clear that he believes none of it,
tells how every year at Pothniai in Boiotia suckling pigs were thrown into the
megara, in a sacred wood consecrated to Demeter and her daughter, and that the
pigs reappeared at Dodona the following year. These three elements--Zeus, Dione,
cult of the oak--make up the Dodonian cult. We have evidence of the sanctuary
in the god's answers, inscribed on thin sheets of lead; a certain number have
come down to us. Chiefly under Pyrrhos' influence (297-272) the sanctuary acquired
the form in which it now appears after excavation. It was torn down by the Aitolians
in 219-218, then restored, and destroyed in 168-167 by the Romans and later, in
88 B.C. by Mithridates and his Thracians. In the Augustan period the theater was
made into an arena and the emperor Hadrian visited it about 132. At the end of
the 4th c. A.D. it was again in ruins; the oaks were cut down and a basilica was
put up ca. the 5th or 6th c.
Compared with a sanctuary like Delphi, Dodona clearly did not benefit
from the building and beautification one might expect. Probably its isolated location,
far from Greece proper and from busy thoroughfares, contributed to this neglect.
Even the travelers who visited it, and later the archaeologists, did
not give Dodona the stature it deserved. Excavations carried out since 1944 have
revealed the appearance of the sanctuary as well as its history. The theater,
located by all the travelers, has been completely uncovered and restored. It dates
from Pyrrhos' reign. The cavea measures 21.9 m in diameter, the stone stage 31.2
m, and the orchestra ca. 19 m in diameter. The cavea was divided into three sections
of 21, 16, and 21 rows of seats, giving it a capacity comparable to that of Epidauros.
Ten radiating stairways divide the cavea into nine bays each for the first and
second sections and 18 bays for the third. After the destruction in the 3d c.
the wooden proskenion was replaced by one of stone. Again destroyed by the Romans,
the theater was made lnto an arena in the Augustan period.
Above the theater and sanctuary is an acropolis ringed with walls
dating from the 4th c. B.C. that have in places been preserved to a height of
The sanctuary is situated to the E, 50 m down from the acropolis,
and is partly surrounded by a wall. Inside this hieron to the E is a basilica,
long mistaken for an early Temple of Zeus, then three small temples that have
been identified as a Temple of Aphrodite and two of Dione. Between this group
of buildings and the theater is a quadrangular monument, identified as the bouleutenon.
As for the actual Sanctuary of Zeus, known as Hiera Oikia, it is possible to reconstruct
its history, which is clearly divided into three periods. The first dates from
the 4th c., when the sanctuary consisted of a temenos with a peribolos wall around
it and a sacred oak inside it, and a small rectangular monument in one corner.
Next, in the Hellenistic period, the temenos was enlarged, a stoa being put up
on three of its four sides. Finally, about 200 B.C., the small naiskos was rebuilt,
becoming prostyle, while a small propylaea was put up in the axis of the temple
to allow for passage on the S side of the stoa. The sacred oak remained in the
area of the temenos, close to the E peribolos wall.
Y. Bequignon, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites,
Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Nov 2002 from
Perseus Project URL below, which contains bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.
Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
A celebrated city and oracle of Epirus, whose exact position
has only of late been ascertained. We are not assisted here by any accurate ancient
traveller like Pausanias, nor have we any itineraries or faithful measurements
of distances to guide us; all is vague and indefinite. Dionysius of Halicarnassus
placed it four days' journey from Buthrotum and two from Ambracia. It is universally
allowed that the temple of Dodona owed its origin to the Pelasgi at a period much
anterior to the Trojan War; since many writers represent it as existing in the
time of Deucalion, and even of Inachus. Herodotus distinctly states that it was
the most ancient oracle of Greece, and represents the Pelasgi as consulting it
on various occasions. Hence the title of "Pelasgic" assigned to Zeus,
to whom the temple was dedicated. Of the existence, however, of another oracle
in Thessaly of the same name no doubt can be entertained; and to this the prayer
of Achilles, in Homer, probably had reference. Setting aside the fables which
Herodotus has transmitted to us, and to which he evidently attached no belief,
his report of the affinity which existed between the service of this temple and
that of Thebes in Egypt is deserving of attention. It appears from this author
that in his time the service of the temple was performed by women; and he has
recorded the names of the three priestesses who officiated when he visited Dodona.
Strabo, however, asserts that these duties were originally allotted to men, from
the circumstance of Homer's mention of the Selli as being attendant upon the gods.
The term Selli was considered by many ancient writers to refer to a people of
The responses of the oracle were originally delivered from
the sacred oak or beech (phegos). The god revealed his message in the rustling
of the leaves, and the priests interpreted its meaning. Its reputation was at
first confined to the inhabitants of Epirus, Acarnania, Aetolia, and the western
parts of Greece, but its fame was afterwards extended over the whole of that country,
and even to Asia, as we know that on one occasion the oracle was consulted by
Croesus. The Boeotians were the only people who received the prophetic answers
from the mouth of men; to all other nations they were always communicated by the
priestesses of the temple. The reason of this exception is stated at length by
Strabo (401), on the authority of Ephorus. Dodona was the first station in Greece
to which the offerings of the Hyperboreans were despatched, according to Herodotus;
they arrived there from the Adriatic, and were thence passed on to the Maliac
Gulf. Among the several offerings presented to the temple by various na tions,
one dedicated by the Corcyreans is particularly noticed. It was a brazen figure
placed over a caldron of the same metal; this statue held in its hand a whip,
the lash of which consisted of three chains, each having an astragalus fastened
to the end of it; these, when agitated by the wind, struck the caldron and produced
so continued a sound that 400 vibrations could be counted before it ceased. Hence
arose the various proverbs of the Dodonean caldron and the Corcyrean lash. Menander,
in one of his plays, compared an old nurse's chatter to the endless sound of this
We hear of the oracle of Dodona at the time of the Persian
invasion; and again in the reign of Agesilaus, who consulted it previously to
his expedition into Asia. It is stated by Diodorus Siculus that Lysander was accused
openly of having offered to bribe the priestess. The oracle which warned the Molossian
Alexander of his fate is well known from Livy. From Demosthenes we learn that
the answers delivered from time to time to the Athenians were laid up in the public
archives, and he himself appeals to their testimony on more than one occasion.
At length, during the Social War, Dodona was, according to Polybius, almost entirely
destroyed in an irruption of the Aetolians, under their leader Dorimachus, then
at war with Epirus. It is probable that the temple of Dodona never recovered from
this disaster, as in Strabo's time there was scarcely any trace left of the oracle,
but the town must still have existed, as it is mentioned by Hierocles among the
cities of Epirus in the seventh century, and we hear of a bishop of Dodona in
the council of Ephesus. All accounts seem to agree that Dodona stood either on
the declivity or at the foot of an elevated mountain called Tomarus or Tamarus.
Hence the term Tomuri, supposed to be a contraction for Tomaruri (Tomarouroi),
or guardians of Tomarus, which was given to the priests of the temple. The site
of Dodona was at one time supposed to be near Janina in Epirus, but recent explorations
in the valley of Dramisius at the foot of Mount Olytzika have brought to light
many dedicatory inscriptions to Zeus Naios and Dione, with other evidences that
make this the probable site of the oracle.
This text is cited Oct 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Perseus: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
- Dodona: Perseus Lookup Tool, text search
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Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)
Dodone (sometimes Dodon, Soph. Trach. 172: Eth. Dodonaios). A town
in Epeirus, celebrated for its oracle of Zeus, the most ancient in Hellas. It
was one of the seats of the Pelasgians, and the Dodonaean Zeus was a Pelasgic
divinity. The oracle at Dodona enjoyed most celebrity in the earlier times. In
consequence of its distance from the leading Grecian states, it was subsequently
supplanted to a great extent by that at Delphi; but it continued to enjoy a high
reputation, and was regarded in later times as one of the three greatest oracles,
the other two being those of Delphi and of Zeus Ammon in Libya. (Strab. xvi. p.
762; Cic. de Div. i. 1, 43; Corn. Nep. Lys. 3.)
The antiquity of Dodona is attested by several passages of Homer,
which it is necessary to quote as they have given rise to considerable discussion:
(1) Gouneus d ek Kuphou e_ge duo kai eikosi neas: toi d Enienes heponto, meneptolemoi
te Peraiboi, hoi peri Dodonen duscheimeron oiki ethento hoi t amph himerton Titaresion
erg enemonto. (Il. ii. 748.)
(2) Zeu ana, Dodonaie, Pelasgike, telothi naion, Dodones medeon duscheimerou amphi
de Selloi soi naious hupophetai aniptopodes chamieunai. (Il. xvi. 233.)
(3) Ton d es Dodonen phato bemenai, ophra theoio ek druos hupsikomoio Dios boulen
epakousai, hoppos nostesei Ithakes es piona demon. (Od. xiv. 327, xix. 296).
The ancient critics believed that there were two places of the name
of Dodona, one in Thessaly, in the district of Perrhaebia near Mount Olympus,
and the other in Epeirus in the district of Thesprotia; that the Enienes mentioned
(No. 1) along with the Perrhaebi of the river Titaresius came from the Thessalian
town; and that the Dodona, which Ulysses visited in order to consult the oracular
oak of Zeus, after leaving the king of the Thesproti, was the place in Epeirus
(No. 3). With respect to the second passage above quoted there was a difference
of opinion; some supposing posing that Achilles prayed to Zeus in the Thessalian
Dodona as the patron god of his native country; but others maintaining that the
mention of Selli, whose name elsewhere occurs in connection with the Thesprotian
Dodona, points to the place in Epeirns. (Strab. vii. p. 327, ix. p. 441; Steph.
B. s. v. Dodone.) There can be no doubt, that the first-quoted passage in Homer
refers to a Dodona in Thessaly; but as there is no evidence of the existence of
an oracle at this place, it is probable that the prayer of Achilles was directed
to the god in Epeirus, whose oracle had already acquired great celebrity, as we
see from the passage in the Odyssey. The Thessalian Dodona is said to have been
also called Bodona; and from this place the Thesprotian Dodona is said to have
received a colony and its name.
The Selli, whom Homer describes as the interpreters of Zeus, men of
unwashed feet, who slept on the ground, appear to have been a tribe. They are
called by Pindar the Helli; and the surrounding country, named after them Hellopia
(Hellopie), is described by Hesiod as a fertile land with rich pastures, wherein
Dodona was situated. (Strab. vii. p. 328; Schol. ad Soph. Trach. 1167.) Aristotle
places the most ancient Hellas in the parts about Dodona and the Achelous, adding
that the Achelous has frequently changed its course, - a necessary addition, since
the Achelous does not flow near Dodona. He likewise states that the flood of Deucalion
took place in this district, which was inhabited at that time by the Selli, and
by the people then called Graeci, but now Hellenes. (Aristot. Meteor. i. 14.)
We do not know the authority which Aristotle had for this statement, which is
in opposition to the commonly received opinion of the Greeks, who connected Deucalion,
Hellen, and the Hellenes, with the district in Thessaly between Mounts Othrys
and Oeta. (Grote, Hist. of Greece, vol. ii. p. 355.)
It is impossible to penetrate any further back into the origin of
the oracle; and we may safely dismiss the tales related by Herodotus of its Egyptian
origin, and of its connection with the temple of Thebes in Egypt, and of Zeus
Ammon in Libya. (Herod. ii. 54, seq.) The god at Dodona was said to dwell in the
stem of an oak (phegos, the oak bearing an esculent acorn, not the Latin fagus,
our beech), in the hollow of which his statue was probably placed in the most
ancient times, and which was at first his only temple (naion d en puthmeni phegou,
Hes. ap. Soph. Track. 1167; Dodonen phegon te, Pelasgon hedranon, heken, Hes.
ap. Strab. vii. p. 327; comp. Muller, Archaol. § 52, 2). The god revealed his
will from the branches of the tree, probably by the rustling of the wind, which
sounds the priests had to interpret. Hence we frequently read of the speaking
oak or oaks of Dodona. (Hom. Od. xiv. 327, xix. 296; hai prosegoroi drues, Aesch.
Prom. 832; poluglossou druos, Soph. Trach. 1168.) In the time of Herodotus and
Sophocles the oracles were interpreted by three (Sophocles says two) aged women,
called Peleiades or Pelaiai, because pigeons were said to have brought the command
to found the oracle:
hos ten palaian phegon audesai note
Dodoni disson ek peleiadon ephe.
(Soph. Track. 171.)
Herodotus (ii. 55) mentions the name of three priestesses. (Comp.
Strab. vii. Fragm, 2; Paus. x. 12. § 10.) These female priestesses were probably
introduced instead of the Selli at the time when the worship of Dione was connected
with that of Zeus at Dodona; and the Boeotians were the only people who continued
to receive the oracles from male priests. (Strab. ix. p. 402.)
As Delphi grew in importance, Dodona was chiefly consulted by the
neighbouring tribes, the Aetolians, Acarnanians, and Epeirots (Paus. viii. 21.
§ 2); but, as we have already remarked, it continued to enjoy great celebrity
even down to the later times. Croesus sent to inquire of the oracle (Herod. i.
46); Pindar composed a Paean in honour of the Dodonaean god, since there was a
close connection between Thebes and Dodona (Pind. Fragm. p. 571, ed. Bolckh; Strab.
ix. p. 402); Aeschylus and Sophocles speak of the oracle in terms of the highest
reverence (Aesch. Prom. 829, seq.; Soph. Track. 1164, seq.); and Cicero relates
that the Spartans, in important matters, were accustomed to ask the advice of
the oracles either of Delphi, or Dodona, or Zeus Ammon (Cic. de Div. i. 4. 3).
The Athenians also seem not unfrequently to have consulted the oracle, which they
did probably through their suspicion of the Pythia at Delphi in the Peloponnesian
War. Thus, they are said to have been commanded by the Dodonaean god to found
a colony in Sicily (Paus. viii. 11. § 12); Demosthenes quotes several oracles
from Dodona (de Fals. Leg. p. 436, in Mid. p. 531, ed. Reiske); and Xenophon recommends
the Athenians to send to Dodona for advice (de Vect. 6. § 2). Under the Molossian
kings, who gradually extended their dominion over the whole of Epeirus, Dodona
probably rose again in importance. The coins of the Molossian kings frequently
bear the heads of Zeus and Dione, or of Zeus alone, within a garland of oak.
In B.C. 219, Dodona received a blow from which it never recovered.
In that year the Aetolians under Dorimachus, who were at war with Philip, king
of Macedonia, ravaged Aetolia, and razed to the ground the temple of the god.
(Polyb. iv. 67.) Strabo, in describing the ruined condition of the towns of Epeirus
in his time, says that the oracle also had almost failed (vii. p. 327); but it
subsequently recovered, and Pausanias mentions the temple and sacred oaktree as
objects worthy of the traveller's notice. (Paus. i. 17. § 6.) He elsewhere speaks
of the oak of Dodona as the oldest tree in all Hellas, next to the Lugos of Hera
in Samos. (Paus. viii. 23. § 5.) The town continued to exist long afterwards.
The names of several bishops of Dodona occur in the Acts of the Councils: according
to Leake, the latest was in the year 516. Dodona is mentioned by Hierocles in
the sixth century (p. 651, ed. Wessel.).
Of the temple of Dodona we have no description notwithstanding the
celebrity of the oracle. Indeed the building itself is first mentioned by Polybius,
in his account of its destruction by the Aetolians in B.C. 219. He says that when
Dorimachus arrived at the hieron near Dodona, he burnt the Stoae or Colonnades,
destroyed many of the dedicatory offerings, and razed the sacred house to its
foundations. (Paragenomenos de pros to peri Dodonen hieron, tas te stoas eneprese,
kai polla ton anathematon diephtheire, kateskapse de kai ten hieran oikian, Pol.
iv. 67.) From the words peri Dodonen we may conclude that the hieron was not within
the walls of Dodona. It appears to have occupied a considerable space, and to
have contained several other buildings besides the sacred house or temple proper
of the god. It was stated by a writer of the name of Demon; that the temple was
surrounded with tripods bearing caldrons, and that these were placed so closely
together, that when one was struck the noise vibrated through all. (Steph. B.
s. v. Dodone; Schol. ad Hom. Il.. xvi. 233.) It appears that the greater part
of these had been contributed by the Boeotians, who were accustomed to send presents
of tripods every year. (Strab. x. p. 402.) Among the remarkable objects at Dodona
were two pillars, on one of which was a brazen caldron, and on the other a statue
of a boy holding in his hand a brazen whip, dedicated by the Corcyraeans: when
the wind blew, the whip struck the caldron, and produced a loud noise. As Dodona
was in an exposed situation, this constantly happened, and hence arose the proverb
of the Dodonaean caldron and the Corcyraean whip. (Polemon, ap. Steph. B. s. v.
Dodone; Suid. s. v. Dodonaion chalkeion; Strab. vii. p. 329.) This appears to
have been one of the means of consulting the god; and hence Gregory Nazianzen,
in describing the silence of the oracle in his time, says, ouketi lebes manteuetai
(Or. iv. p. 127, c.). Respecting the way in which the oracles were given, there
are different accounts; and they probably differed at different times. The most
ancient mode was by means of sounds from the trees, of which we have already spoken.
Servius relates that at the foot of the sacred oak there gushed forth a fountain,
the noise of whose waters was prophetic and was interpreted by the priestesses
(ad Virg. Aen. iii. 466). On some occasions the will of the god appears to have
been ascertained by means of lots. (Cic. de Div. i. 3. 4)
The site of Dodona cannot be fixed with certainty. No remains of the
temple have been discovered; and no inscriptions have been found to determine
its locality. It is the only place of great celebrity in Greece, of which the
situation is not exactly known. Leake, who has examined the subject with his usual
acuteness and learning, comes to the conclusion, with great probability, that
the fertile valley of Ioainnina is the territory of Dodona, and that the ruins
upon the hill of Kastritza at the southern end of the lake of Ioannina are those
of the ancient city. Leake remarks that it can hardly be doubted by any person
who has seen the country around Ioannina, and has examined the extensive remains
at Kastritza, that the city which stood in that centrical and commanding position
was the capital of the district dnring a long succession of ages. The town not
only covered all the summit, but had a secondary inclosure or fortified suburb
on the southern side of the hill, so as to make the whole circumference between
two and three miles. Of the suburb the remains consist chiefly of detached fragments,
and of remains of buildings strewn upon the land, which is here cultivated. But
the entire circuit of the town walls is traceable on the heights, as well as those
of the acropolis on the summit. These, in some places, are extant to the height
of 8 or 10 feet. The masonry is of the second order, or composed of trapezoidal
or polyhedral masses, which are exactly fitted to one another without cement,
and form a casing for an interior mass of rough stones and mortar. . . . A monastery,
which stands in the middle of the Hellenic inclosure, bears the same name as the
hill, but although built in great part of ancient materials, it does not preserve
a single inscribed or sculptured marble, nor could I find any such relics on any
part of the ancient site. (Leake.)
Our space allows us to mention only briefly the chief arguments of
Leake iii favour of placing Dodona at Kastritza. It was the opinion of the ancient
writers that Dodona first belonged to Thesprotia, and afterwards to Molossis.
Stephanus B. calls it a town of Molossis, and Strabo (vii. p. 328) places it in
the same district, but observes that it was called a Thesprotian town by the tragic
poets and by Pindar. But even Aeschylus, through calling the oracle that of the
Thesprotian Zeus, places Dodona on the Molossian plain (Prom. 829):
epei gar elthes pros Molossa dapeda,
ten aipunoton t amphi Dodonen, hina
manteia thokos t esti Thesprotou Dios.
Hence it would appear that the territory of Dodona bordered on the
inland frontiers of Thesprotia and Molossis, and must in that case correspond
to the district of Ioannina. Pindar describes Epeirus as beginning at Dodona,
and extending from thence to the Ionian sea (Nem. iv. 81); from which it follows
that Dodona was on the eastern frontier of Epeirus., That it was near the lofty
mountains of Pindus, on the eastern frontier, may be inferred from the manner
in which Aeschylus speaks of the Dodonaean mountains (Supp. 258), and from the
epithet of aipunotos attached to the place by the same poet (Prom. 830), aud from
that of duscheimeros given to it by Homer. (Il. xvi. 234.) The account of the
destruction of Dodona by the Aetolians also shows that it was on the eastern frontier
of Epeirus. Polybius says that the Aetolians marched into the upper parts' of
Epeirus) (eis tous ano topous tes Epeirou), which words appear to be equivalent
to Upper Epeirus, or the parts most distant from the sea towards the central range
Hesiod, in a passage already referred to (ap. Schol. ad Soph. Trach.
1167; comp. Strab. vii. p. 328), describes Dodona as situated upon an extremity
in, the district called Hellopia, a country of cornfields and meadows, abounding
in sheep and oxen, and inhabited by numerous shepherds and keepers of cattle;
- a description accurately applicable to the valley of Ioannina, which contains
meadows and numerous flocks and herds. Several ancient writers' state that the
temple of Dodona stood at the foot of a high mountain called Tomarus or Tmarus
(Tomaros, Tmaros), from which the priests of the god are said to have been called
Tomuri (Tomouroi, Strab. vii. p. 328; Callim. Hymn. in Cer. 52; Steph. B. s. v.
Tomaros; Hesych. s. v. Tmarios; Eustath. ad Od. xiv. 327, p. 1760, R., ad Od.
xvi. 403, p. 1806, R.). Theopompus relates that there were a hundred fountains
at the foot of Mt. Tomarus. (Plin. iv. 1.) Leake identifies Tomarus with the commanding
ridge of Mitzikeli, at the foot of which are numerous sources from which the lake
of Ioannina derives its chief supply. He further observes that the name Tomarus,
though no longer attached to this mountain, is not quite obsolete, being still
preserved in that of the Tomarokhoria, or villages situated on al part of the
southern extremity of Dhrysko, which is a continuation of Mitzikeli.
The chief objection to placing Dodona near Ioannina is the silence
of the ancient writers as to a lake at Dodona. But this negative evidence is not
sufficient to outweigh the reasons in favour of this' site, more especially when
we consider that the only detailed description which we possess of the locality
is in a fragment of Hesiod, who may have mentioned the lake in the lines immediately
following, which are now lost. Moreover, Apollodorus stated that there were marshes
round the temple (ap. Strab. vii. [p. 784] p. 328). The lake of Ioannina was known
in antiquity by the name of Pambotis (Pambotis limne), which was placed in Molossis.
(Eustath. in Hom. Od. iii. 189.)
We have already seen that the temple of Dodona was probably outside
the city. Leake supposes that the former stood on the peninsula now occupied by
the citadel of Ioannina, but there are no remains of the temple on this spot.
This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited June 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD)
Greek and Roman Antiquities (eds. William Smith)
The Oracle of Dodona in Epirus
The Oracle of Dodona in Epirus. Here Zeus himself, the supreme god, was believed
to give messages to men through the rustling of the leaves of a lofty oak. We
must suppose something notable in the special tree; but the region round about
Dodona, besides being mountainous, is said to be the most stormy in the whole
of Europe (Mommsen, Delphika, p. 4), and would be calculated to excite the primitive
feelings of the supernatural in a high degree.
We can trace the oracle of Dodona up to a time of extreme primitiveness,
when, it is probable, no other oracle existed in Greece, and before any of the
refinements of experimental divination had been systematised. It is first mentioned
in one of the most touching passages in Homer, that in which Achilles, before
sending out his friend Patroclus to the battle, prays for his safe return. The
invocation runs as follows (Hom. Il. xvi. 233-235):
"Zeu ana, Dodonaie, Pelasgike, telothi naion, Dodones medeon duscheimeron.
ampsi de Selloi soi naioud hupopsetai aniptopodes, chamaieunai:
O king Zeus, Dodonaean and Pelasgian, thou who dwellest afar off, ruler of Dodona
the place of wintry storms; and round about thee the Selli thy interpreters dwell,
they of unwashed feet, whose couch is on the bare ground . . . . . Achilles, it
is plain, addresses Zeus in these terms because he was believed to stand in a
nearer relation to men at Dodona, through his oracle, than elsewhere; but also
the passage appears to intimate a difference between the Zeus of Dodona and that
more familiar Zeus who quarrelled with Hera on Olympus. And we have other reasons
for thinking that the Zeus whom the Pelasgi worshipped in those remote times was
something far vaguer than the Zeus of Homer. In the first place, we have the distinct
affirmation of Herodotus (ii. 52): In early times the Pelasgi, as I know by information
which I got at Dodona, offered sacrifices of all kinds, and prayed to the gods,
but had no distinct names or appellations for them, since they had never heard
of any. Herodotus goes on to say that the names of the gods were introduced from
Egypt, and that the oracle of Dodona sanctioned their use; statements which are
open to criticism. In the next place, Zeus at Dodona was worshipped under a peculiar
name, Zeus Naius (Naios), the exact meaning of which is uncertain; and with him
was worshipped a goddess, Dione, whose name (as Bouche--Leclercq suggests) is
probably the feminine of Zeus. When the worship of Dione was introduced, we do
not know; the first mention of it appears to be in Demosthenes (c. Meid. p. 531,
§ 53; de F. L. p. 437, § 299): but Strabo (vii. p. 329) tells us that she had
a common temple with Jupiter; the researches of Carapanos at Dodona show that
votive tablets were dedicated to her jointly with Zeus; and the meaning of her
name and antiquity of her worship are testified by the two quaint verses ascribed
by Pausanias (x. 12, § 5) to the early priestesses of Dodona: Zeus en, Zeus esti,
Zeus essetai, o megale Zeu. Ga karpous aniei, dio kleizete metera gaian.
Though Dione is not mentioned here, it is difficult not to think that
she is identical with the earth (ga) mentioned in the second line; and if so,
Zeus and Dione are symbolical of heaven and earth.
We may then in all probability look upon the oracle at Dodona, in
its original form, as. dedicated to a Zeus who symbolised, simply,. Heaven, and
the power that dwells therein; and either from the first, or at all events at
a very early date, a goddess symbolising the Earth, Dione, was associated with
him. Such a worship must have been very different from the elaborate mythology
which afterwards prevailed; and it will be observed that the ceremonial described
by Homer is no less simple and primitive. The interpreters of Zeus are the Selli
with unwashed feet, whose couch is on the bare ground; and if one is to take the
account in the Odyssey as not far removed in time from that in the Iliad, we must
suppose that they listened, as they lay, to the rustling of the oak-leaves; for
in that poem (xiv. 327-8, xix. 296-7) Ulysses is said (in a feigned story) to
have gone to Dodona to hear the counsel of Zeus out of the lofty foliaged oak:
Ton d es Dodonen psato bemenai, opsra theoio ek druos hupsikomoio Dios boulen
Further, these Selli appear to have been originally not a caste of
priests, but a tribe: Aristotle (Meteor. i. 14) speaks of them as such, and brings
them into close connexion with the original Hellenes. It is therefore probable
that they are the same as the Helli mentioned by Pindar, and that their district
in those early times was called Hellopia; for at the end of Hellopia, says Hesiod
(Fragm. ap. Schol. Sophocl. Trach. 1169), is the city of Dodona, which Zeus chose
to be his oracular seat, and where he lived in the trunk of an oak-tree (psegou).
So far the accounts of Dodona testify to a native origin, and to great
rudeness of character. But the next step in its history brings it into contact
with a foreign country; namely, Egypt. Herodotus, who gives the account referred
to (ii. 54-57), professes it to be a narrative of the foundation of the oracle.
Few will think this probable: but it may very well mark a period when the oracle
received a more systematic form, and, above all, when the institution of priestesses
began. These are not mentioned by Homer; and though they might have risen from
a native source, there is no improbability in their foreign derivation. The priests
at the Egyptian Thebes, then, told Herodotus that two of the sacred women were
once carried off from Thebes by the Phoenicians, and they had learnt that one
of them had been sold into Libya and the other into Greece; and these women were
the first founders of the oracles in the two countries. The Dodonaean story, also
told to Herodotus, is the exact counterpart of the above, except that the women
are represented as doves. Two black doves, said the priestesses of Dodona, flew
away from the Egyptian Thebes, and, while one directed its flight to Libya, the
other came hither: she alighted on an oak, and sitting there began to speak with
a human voice, and said that on the [p. 279] spot where she was, there should
henceforth be an oracle of Zeus . . . . The dove which flew to Libya bade the
Libyans to establish there the oracle of Ammon. The correspondence between these
narratives, current in localities so distant from one another as the Egyptian
Thebes and Dodona, is too great to have come by chance; and when we find from
Strabo (vii. Fragm. 1 and 2) that the words for old woman and for dove in the
Molossian language are similar, and from Sophocles (Trachin. 171-2) and Pausanias
(x. 12, § 5) that the priestesses at Dodona were actually called doves, all objection
to the Dodonaean story, on the ground of the seeming miracles, surely vanishes.
And it is a further confirmation that Herodotus (ii. 57) tells us that the Dodonaean
oracle resembled in character that at Thebes; to which may be added that Strabo
(vii. Fragm. 1) tells us that the oracles of Dodona and Ammon were similar. Moreover,
the quaint verses of the Dodonaean priestesses, quoted above from Pausanias, must
remind us (longo intervallo) of the celebrated inscription on the temple of the
It will then appear that at a certain early period of the Dodonaean
oracle, an important change took place owing to Egyptian influence; a change which
at any rate involved the appointment of priestesses. It is possible that the worship
of Dione was introduced at the same period, and so Strabo seems to imply (vii.
p. 329): but this is altogether uncertain. When priestesses were once introduced
as ministrants of the oracle, the male interpreters of the divine will sank into
the background. Sophocles indeed (Trach. 1167) speaks of the Selli: but the passage
applies to remote antiquity.
Herodotus seems to have met with none; and they are ignored by Plato
(Phaedr. 244 B). Strabo, however (ix. p. 402), tells us that, owing to a certain
tragical occurrence, men and not women communicated the divine messages to Boeotians;
though all other nations received them from the priestesses. At the same time
the priestesses were under the control of a council of men; and Carapanos has
found at Dodona inscriptions bearing the name and title of the president (naiarchos)
of this council, and of one of its officers (prostates). (Carapanos, Dodone, pp.
50, 56.) Strabo tells us that the priests referred to by Homer were called tomouroi,
and that some affirmed this to be the true reading in Hom. Od. xvi. 403, in place
Certain changes in the method of divination employed by this oracle
must now be noted. The original method was by the interpretation of sounds (viz.
the rustling of leaves); but in Plato's time we find (Plat. Phaedr. 244 B) that
the priestesses, like those at Delphi, prophesied in a state of divine frenzy.
This might be a direct imitation of Delphi; but the imitation would probably be
disguised by an intermediate stage, dream-inspiration. Lycophron tells us (ap.
Eustath. ad Iliad. xvi. 233) that this mode of divination existed at Dodona; and
it would be quite natural for the priests or priestesses to listen to their rustling
oak-tree by preference at night (and Homer's word chamaieunai suggests this).
Again, we learn from Cicero (Divin. i. 43, 76) that divination by lots was practised
at Dodona; it was an ill omen, he tells us, for the Spartans before Leuctra, that
a monkey overturned the vessel in which were the lots that they had sent to the
oracle. In later times brazen vessels were used to produce sounds of prophetic
import: a circle of such vessels was suspended, which being moved by the wind
struck against one another: for the same purpose a present was made by the Corcyraeans
of a metal basin with a statue of a man placed over it, in the hand of which was
a brazen scourge of three thongs, from which small bones (astragaloi) were suspended,
which being moved by the wind struck against the basin. (Steph. Byz. s. v. Dodone:
Suidas, s. v. Dodonaion chalkeion: Philostr. Imag. ii. p. 830; Strabo, vii. Fragm.
3.) This Corcyraean scourge was seen in the early part of the 2nd century B.C.
by Polemon the geographer (cf. L. Preller, Polemonis periegetae fragmenta, Lips.
1838). At a still later date we have mention of a marvellous fountain at Dodona,
which kindled torches when applied to it, and whose murmurings had also a prophetic
quality (Plin. ii. § 228; Serv. ad Aen. iii. 466).
No mention has been made above of a mode of divination which, in times
when Dodona had fallen into decay, was thought to have been formerly practised
there; namely, by the observation of the flight of doves. Dionysius of Halicarnassus
(i. 15) mentions this; as also Strabo (vii. Fragm. 1), who however regards it
as a misinterpretation of the fact that the priestesses were called doves. And
a misinterpretation it was, no doubt, and one which would very naturally be caused
by the original narrative of the foundation of the oracle in Herodotus; or by
the expression disson peleiadon in Soph. Trach. 172. But it had a hold on the
imagination of the Roman poets, which was increased by the fact that Dione, spoken
of by Homer as the mother of Aphrodite (Il. v. 371), was afterwards identified
with Aphrodite herself (Theocr. Idyll. vii. 116; Ovid. Art. Am. iii. 3, 769; Fast.
ii. 461, v. 309), to whom doves were particularly sacred, whence Servius (ad Aen.
iii. 466) actually speaks of the oracle as dedicated Jovi et Veneri, and in the
Clementine Homilies (iv. 16, v. 13) Dodone is used as synonymous with Aphrodite.
But all these are late and inaccurate representations, and receive no support
whatever from any author contemporary with the period when the oracle was flourishing.
A curious phrase may here be mentioned, with which Ephorus (ap. Macr.
Saturn. v. 18, 8) tells us the oracles emanating from Dodona always terminated--Sacrifice
to Achelous: the origin and exact meaning of the injunction is unknown.
Dodona, though the most ancient of the oracles (as Herod. ii. 52 says,
and as everything leads us to believe) was of course very inferior in political
importance to Delphi, during the historical period. Croesus consulted it (Herod.
i. 46), but was dissatisfied with its answer. The Athenians were unfortunately
encouraged by it in their Sicilian expedition (Pausan. viii. 11, § 6; Suidas,
s. v. Annibas). On the other hand, it proved itself incorruptible to the bribes
of Lysander, when he wished to make himself king of Sparta (Plut. Lysand.); and
it may be [p. 280] that Delphi had shown itself less scrupulous (though it also
is said to have refused the bribe), for we find that Agesilaus, when meditating
his expedition into Asia, gave a most marked preference to Dodona over Delphi
(Plut. Apophth. Lacon. Agesil. 10). Demosthenes in the Meidias (l. c.) appeals
to the two as equal authorities; in the de Falsa Legatione (l. c.), however, he
refers to Zeus and Dione, but not to Apollo. We read of honours paid by the Athenians
to the oracle of Dodona at a still later date (Hyperid. pro Euxenippo, § 35).
The discoveries of Carapanos prove that the official documents of the Epirotic
assembly were kept in the temple of Dodona (Dodone, pp. 48-68). But in B.C. 219,
Dorimachus, the Aetolian general, razed the temple to the ground, and in B.C.
167 the Roman general Paulus Aemilius devastated and ruined Epirus. The oracle
never recovered these blows. Seneca (Herc. Oet. 1623) speaks of it as deserted.
Hadrian appears from the inscriptions to have been a benefactor to Dodona (Carapanos,
op. cit. p. 171), and probably even rebuilt the temple; but the restoration, to
judge both from probability and from the testimony of Lucian (Icaromen. 24), had
little vitality; and the oracle may be said to have died under the destructive
invasion of Dorimachus.
The actual site of Dodona, which long had been unknown, was discovered
in the year 1876 by a Greek explorer, Il. Constantin Carapanos, in the valley
of the Tcharacovitza, about eleven miles south-west of the town and lake of Janina.
Bp. Chr. Wordsworth, however, had already fixed upon the same spot (Greece, p.
249). The foundations of the temple and of the sacred enclosure were laid bare;
and numerous inscriptions on leaden tablets render this one of the most important
antiquarian discoveries ever made. Out of the mass of the votive tablets one inscription
of more than ordinary historical interest may be quoted here: that in which the
distracted Corcyraeans beg the oracle to tell them to what god or hero they must
pray and sacrifice, in order to agree together for the common good.
It will suffice just to mention the fact that a line of Homer (Il.
ii. 750) mentions another Dodona in Thessaly, which has been by some supposed
to be the original of the Epirotic oracle. The supposition, however, is otherwise
entirely unsupported, and may be discarded without any great risk of error.
This text is from: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) (eds. William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin). Cited July 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) (eds. William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin)