Historical Resources

Ancient Greek Oracles: an Overview

Asking the gods for guidance was a crucial way for the Greeks and others in the ancient world to deal with uncertainty. People were prepared to travel long distances to visit oracles, and this would have involved considerable expense. We should assume that the questions they asked were of great importance to them.

There were many oracular sanctuaries that pilgrims could visit, scattered through Greece, including some further afield. They were associated with a variety of gods and heroes, but more commonly with Apollo or Zeus. In the fifth century BCE the most prestigious oracles were those of Apollo at Delphi, and those of Zeus at Dodona and Olympia. For those prepared to travel further, there was the oracle of Ammon (the Egyptian god considered equivalent to Zeus) in Egypt.

Different oracles worked in different ways: at Olympia the visitor would offer a sacrifice, and the expert seers there would interpret the animal’s entrails; in some places visitors would spend the night in the sanctuary in order to have dreams that would offer answers. But at many of the most important sanctuaries the visitor would speak directly to the priestess (or sometimes priest), who would receive inspiration from the god and answer as this inspiration directed.

Photo: asset 20
An Attic, red-figure drinking bowl (Kylix) by the Kodros Painter from 440 - 430 BC. The image depicts a consultation of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. King Aegeus (right) is right consulting the Pythia (left) who is seated on a tripod cauldron.
Photo: Antikensammlung der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Photographer: Johannes Laurentius.

The surviving examples of questions from Delphi are almost all requests for guidance from communities, and tend to take the same forms: ‘would it be better and more profitable for us to do X?’ and ‘to what gods should we pray to achieve X?’ We find similar questions on the Dodona tablets, in addition to a wide range of other questions, although the majority of these come from private individuals.

When it came to responses, the oracle at Delphi had a reputation for ambiguity, and for giving its answers in cryptic verse. Whether this reputation was deserved is a much-disputed question. Certainly, Greek communities and individuals were willing to go on consulting the Delphic oracle over the centuries, so they must have been able to deal with the responses.

Photo: asset 21
A relief in the form of a shrine, offering of Archinos to Amphiaraos (according to the inscription below the figures). On the left Amphiaraos, standing, is treating the right shoulder of a young man. The latter is represented again, at the back, asleep on a bed, while the snake glides over his shoulder. On the edge a third scene: the dedication of a stele, with relief by Archinos to the shrine of the god. High in the centre of the cornice two apotropaic eyes. Found in the precinct of Amphiaraos at Oropos.
Credit: Relief: offering to Archinos to Amphiaraos. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Relying on supernatural means to obtain answers to questions might strike a modern observer as unwise, and little different from tossing a coin. On the other hand, the ancient consultants of oracles were aware of the limitations of their own knowledge, and at the same time took for granted the existence of powerful and all-knowing divinities. It therefore made good sense to visit the places where the gods were known to offer answers.


  • Eidinow, E. 2018. ‘Oracles and Models: Ancient and Modern Ways of Telling the Future’. The Conversation, 24 February. Available at https://theconversation.com/oracles-and-models-ancient-and-modern-ways-of-telling-the-future-90124. (Accessed: 1 November 2021).
  • Johnston, S.I. 2015. ‘Oracles and Divination’ in The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion, edited by E. Eidinow and J. Kindt, 477-489. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Parke, H.W. 1967. Greek Oracles. London: Hutchinson.
  • Stoneman, R. 2011. The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.