Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), the father of Greek history, claimed that Dodona in Epirus held the honor of being the most ancient oracle site in the Greek world. The earliest written information on Dodona came from the epic poet, Homer. In the Iliad (book sixteen), Achilles proclaimed in an informative speech that Zeus was the god of Dodona and that his priests there slept on the ground with perpetually unwashed feet. Homer elaborated on the topic in the Odyssey (book fourteen), where Odysseus spoke of a sacred oak tree in Dodona from which the will of Zeus could be determined. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, claimed to have personally visited Dodona and confirmed that there was a sacred oak in the region. Besides affirming the importance of the sacred tree, Herodotus provided additional information on the origin and organizational structure of the oracle of Dodona.
Herodotus presented three origin stories for the oracle of Dodona in his text, The Histories. The first tale he claimed to have obtained during his travels in Egypt. According to the Egyptian version, two priestesses in Egyptian Thebes were captured by Phoenicians and sold as slaves in different regions. One was sent to the Siwa Oasis and the other ended up in Epirus, where both priestesses founded new temples that became sites for oracles of Zeus. The second version of the story came from Dodona, and was supposedly narrated to Herodotus by the three reigning prophetesses of the temple, whom he named as Promeneia, Timarete and Nicandra. Their story also began in Egyptian Thebes, but instead of enslaved priestesses, it was two black doves that flew respectively to Siwa and Epirus. When these doves reached their destinations, the birds allegedly gained the power to speak and instructed the locals to build temples to Zeus. After recounting these tales, Herodotus, himself, proposed a third version—a hybrid between the two. He theorized that the black doves mentioned in Dodona were symbols for the captured priestesses of the Egyptian story and that the miracle of the dove speaking was analogous to the priestesses learning vernacular languages used in Siwa and Epirus.
Whatever the truth may have been about the site’s origin, Dodona was undoubtedly an important religious center with very ancient roots. There was activity in the region before or during the final centuries of the second millennium BCE, around the time of the Mycenaean Civilization in Greece. The religious cult in Dodona seemed to have originally worshiped an earth deity, but the site eventually became associated with Zeus and the titan goddess, Dione. By the time of Herodotus, the temple at Dodona was inhabited by a team of three prophetic women, who were fittingly known as the Doves. Over the years, the way the Doves divined the future seemed to change, yet it usually depended on a sacred oak tree or birds. In some stories, the oracles received their message by listening to avian chirps. In other accounts, they divined the future by interpreting the sounds of wind, or even falling acorns, hitting against a bronze surface, which was sometimes a gong and at other times a cauldron. The most popular form of divination, however, was apparently to perceive the future based on the rustling of leaves from the sacred oak.
Although Dodona was surpassed by Delphi in terms of popularity and importance, the Doves continued to interpret the gods’ will for pilgrims until the 4th century CE. The end for the temple at Dodona is believed to have come during the reign of Emperor Theodosius (r. 379-395), who formally adopted the Nicaean Creed version of Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire, outlawing paganism and other interpretations of Christianity.
Picture Attribution: (The Oracle, by Camillo Miola (Biacca), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.