Secrets of the Oracles

Could They Reveal the Thoughts of the Gods?

I have long been fascinated by reports of paranormal phenomena, and I believe there is strong scientific evidence for various types of psychic occurrences, including telepathy and precognition. Studying the past has peaked my interest in such topics, as the ancients record phenomena similar to those seen today.

The classical Greco-Romans did not have words exactly equivalent to the modern terms “telepathy” (direct mind-to-mind communication by means other than through the normal senses) and “clairvoyance” (literally “clear vision”; the reception of information about objects, persons, or events other than by normal means). Rather, both telepathy and clairvoyance were included, along with retrocognition and precognition (receiving information about the past and the future, respectively, by other than normal means), within the general concept of “divination” (see E. R. Dodds, Journal of Parapsychology, December 1946). From a practical point of view, the precognitive aspects of divination were often emphasized; naturally people desired to know the future!

Divination was widespread in the classical ancient world and taken extremely seriously by many educated and well-positioned people, including philosophers and kings. Of course there were those who doubted the veracity of common forms of divination, but this could be a difficult position to hold as many forms of ancient divination were intimately connected with the oracles of the gods (the word divination literally refers to being inspired by the gods). Perhaps the most famous oracle was that of Delphi. At the Temple of Apollo on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus in the heart of Greece, the Pythia (sometimes referred to as a priestess, although not a priestess in a modern sense but more like a séance medium who went into a trance) became the mouthpiece of the god himself, uttering the messages of Apollo while attendant priests (also referred to as prophets) recorded and interpreted the words spoken by the Pythia. Here, common folks to kings, including Alexander the Great, came to seek advice.

Details vary from one account to another, and the actual procedures involved in the oracle changed over the centuries of its operation, but a general pattern emerges. It is reported that the Pythia sat on a bronze tripod in the adyton (the inner sanctum) of the temple. Beneath the tripod there was a fissure, chasm, or hole from which vapors emanated, overpowering the Pythia and putting her into a type of trance. Some reports suggest she chewed on laurel leaves, or breathed in the fumes from materials burning in a brazier, to go into an ecstatic or altered state of consciousness. Those consulting the oracle typically gave questions to male priests (prophets) who in turn presented them to the Pythia. The Pythia at times underwent convulsions as she prophesied, sometimes in disjointed phrases. She might faint, and was typically exhausted at the end of the procedure. She could become very ill and take days to recover; in extreme cases, she might even die. The words she spoke, carefully recorded by the priests, often needed interpretation. At various times in the history of the oracle, young girls were preferred for the role of Pythia; but after one girl was seduced, for a period, only women over the age of fifty were used. Generally the Pythias were recruited from the less-educated classes.

At Hierapolis (Pamukkale, Turkey) there was also a well-known oracle at the temple complex dedicated to Apollo and the mother goddess Cybele. Natural fissures in the rocks gave rise to thermal springs believed to have therapeutic healing powers, and the waters deposit, beautiful, white travertine calcite formations. At one spot, variously known as the Plutonium Grotto, or Demon’s Hole, poisonous gases (perhaps including a high concentration of carbon dioxide) seeped from deep below the surface. Considered the Gate to Hades, the Underworld, birds and other animals that came close to the opening often died of suffocation, but the priests of the temple knew how to survive the noxious fumes and take advantage of them for oracular purposes. A simpler oracle was also employed at the Temple of Apollo at Hierapolis wherein a supplicant could make a sacrifice, then blindly pick from a bowl or pot one of the 24 Greek letters written on stones or shards, and then the priest would read a fortune corresponding to that letter.

Other oracles used different mechanisms to bring forth the inspirations of the gods. Some made use of caves, groves of trees, springs, and sounds produced by doves, or sacred vases, and so forth. There were oracles that consisted of seeing visions in water, in oil, in a mirror, or other shining surfaces—these were all various forms of scrying. Applying a large mollusk shell to the ear induced auditory hallucinations; the shell became the instrument to hear the gods.

Many ancient descriptions of oracles suggest that their basic modus operandi may have been telepathic rapport. The Roman historian Tacitus (circa AD 56-117) describes the Oracle of the Clarian Apollo (located at Colophon, Lydia) as follows:

“There, it is not a woman, as at Delphi, but a priest chosen from certain families, generally from Miletus, who ascertains simply the number and the names of the applicants. Then descending into a cave and drinking a draught from a secret spring, the man, who is commonly ignorant of letters and of poetry, utters a response in verse answering to the thoughts conceived in the mind of any inquirer.”

A different form of oracle was used in ancient Rome: the Sibylline Books, reputedly purchased from a sibyl (a prophetess or seeress) by the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (circa 535-496 BC; he was expelled circa 509 BC, due to his son raping the noblewoman Lucretia, and the Roman Republic established). Legend has it that the Sibylline Books came from the Cumaean Sibyl, a priestess of the oracle of Apollo at Cumae (near Naples). The Sibylline Books were consulted in times of crisis and used primarily to determine the actions, often consisting of religious observances or the dedication of a new temple, to avert danger or offset negative omens and signs. Not unlike the writings of Nostradamus (1503–1566), the Sibylline Books were notoriously ambiguous and difficult to interpret. One can argue that this ambiguity, combined with the protective secrecy surrounding them, allowed the books to be used as a vehicle to manifest genuine paranormal phenomena of a divinatory nature, particularly precognition.

Still other means of divination were used in the ancient world. The Romans employed official priests, augurs, who during the Republic and early Empire became increasingly politicized, garnering power and prestige. Augury in particular refers to the interpretation of the will of the gods by studying the flights and behaviors of birds. Other natural signs, prodigies, and omens were also used, such as flashes of lightning (thunderbolts) and the study of the heavens in the form of astrology or observing comets and eclipses, the casting of lots, and divination based on studying the entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy).

It is perhaps all too easy to dismiss ancient divination as so much superstition and nonsense. Such an attitude belittles persons who were as intelligent as we are, even if they lived in a different era and did not have our technological advantages. A number of great classical thinkers, including the likes of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), Democritus (circa 460-370 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC) devoted considerable time and energy to the study of divination. Generally philosophers such as these distinguished between “technical” (inductive) divination and “natural” (intuitive) divination. The readings of signs, such as the entrails of an animal or the flight of birds, were considered “technical” forms of divination—one can think of it as following codified rules that this or that sign means such and such. Freeform divination via dreams or “uncontrolled” impulsive thoughts, statements, and actions during an ecstatic state are examples of “natural” divination. However, these different modes of divination could blur together. The Pythia of Delphi went into an ecstatic trance state and thus practiced a form of natural divination, but the prophets who recorded and interpreted her sayings may have used various set formulas and patterns that were of a technical nature. On the other extreme, a gifted seer could have sufficient latitude in the interpretation of the entrails of an animal to allow his (or her) natural psychic abilities to be expressed. This is not unlike the successful reading of tea leaves where the patterns are sufficiently open to interpretation to allow other mental paranormal phenomena to be successfully manifested. One theory is that the “reading” of such signs allows the unconscious or subconscious mind to disassociate from, and temporarily override, the conscious self and thus create a situation conducive to the reception of genuine paranormal information.

Democritus and Aristotle accepted that some forms of divination (in the broad sense, including what we would now label the telepathic transfer of information) are genuine. In particular, they both accepted that veridical (truthful) dreams about things remote in time or in space (which it would be impossible for the dreamer to have direct knowledge of) are due to mental paranormal phenomena. The general belief of the times was that such dreams were manifestations of the gods or some form of “spirits” (a belief still widely held today), but Democritus and Aristotle both developed theories that explained certain paranormal phenomena as emanating from living human beings. Aristotle, somewhat haughtily, suggested that if the gods wished to communicate with humans, they would do so more efficiently than through dreams (and the concept of gods speaking through the dreams of “low class” individuals seems to have particularly irritated him). Aristotle also generally rejected the veracity of certain types of technical divination, such as the reading of animal entrails.

According to Democritus, who also developed an early atomic theory of matter, living persons continually emit “images” of their current thoughts and emotions. These “images” can then penetrate a recipient (through tiny pores in the body, Democritus speculated) and transmit thoughts and feelings from the sender to the recipient. On the sending end, a person in an emotionally excited state will transmit stronger and more frequent “images” while the receiver will be more receptive in various mental states that are different from normal waking consciousness, such as the dream state when sleeping, perhaps during a quiet and meditative state, or possibly during an ecstatic state when rational consciousness is let go and communications (the “images”) can more readily penetrate the body and mind. Democritus even suggested that the “images” could be weakened or distorted due to weather or other environmental effects as they travel from sender to receiver. Overall, this is a remarkable theory of telepathy. It is particularly noteworthy that Democritus points out that people in an emotionally excited, traumatic, or crisis state are particularly powerful transmitters of telepathic signals, an observation confirmed by many modern studies.

Aristotle explained veridical dreams and other instances of telepathy using the analogy of waves or vibrations, in analogy to waves that propagate through water or air as the result of a physical disturbance. This is certainly similar to theories of telepathy developed over two thousand years later based on an electromagnetic wave as the telepathic carrier. Of course the classical ancients did not know about radio waves, but they were aware of natural magnets (lodestones) and their attraction to iron. Democritus and Cicero noted magnetism as a possible analogy to the occult way that emanations from one person may affect another, as we see in divination (telepathy).

Democritus was not satisfied with simply collecting tales of veridical dreams and other telepathic experiences; he performed experiments as well. To this end, he traveled to deserts and cemeteries, attempting to isolate himself from living persons, so as to see if he could receive “images” (telepathic messages) from gods, spirits, or the deceased. The results of his experiments have not been preserved, but he seems to have been testing the common notion that the gods (as opposed to living humans) could impart paranormal knowledge. Along these lines, various Stoic philosophers such as Poseidonius (circa 135–51 BC), building on the work of Heraclitus (circa 535–475 BC), asserted that successful divination results from tapping into divine reason, the thoughts of the gods, and also the thoughts of the “daemons” that inhabit the space surrounding us.

Even before Democritus, Croesus of Lydia (king circa 560–547/546 BC) put the most famous oracles of his time to an experimental test. As reported by Herodotus (circa 484-425 BC), Croesus “. . .resolved to make instant trial of the several oracles in Greece, and of the one in Libya. So he sent his messengers in different directions, some to Delphi, some to Abae in Phocis, and some to Dodona; others to the oracle of Amphiaraus; others to that of Trophonius; others, again, to Branchidae in Milesia. . . . To Libya he sent another embassy, to consult the oracle of Ammon. These messengers were sent to test the knowledge of the oracles, that, if they were found really to return true answers, he might send a second time, and inquire if he ought to attack the Persians.”

The messengers were instructed to keep track of the days since they left the court of Croesus, waiting exactly one hundred days to consult the oracles. At that time they were to ask the oracle to relate what Croesus back in Lydia, on that very day, was doing. All of the oracles gave different answers. Significantly, as soon as the Lydian messengers approached the Pythia of the Delphic Oracle—before they even had a chance to ask their question—she cried out: “I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean; I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man means; Lo! On my sense there strikes the smell of a shell-covered tortoise, Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron – Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.”

When Croesus received this message, he was astounded. After the messengers left to visit the respective oracles, Croesus had thought long and hard to try to come up with something unusual and not easily guessed that he would be doing on the hundredth day. Finally he decided to cut up a tortoise and a lamb, and boil them together in a brass cauldron covered with a brass lid, just as the Pythia of the Delphic Oracle described! (In modern terms, the success of the Pythia’s divination in this case can be ascribed to telepathy and need not imply that the Pythia would be equally successful in prognosticating the future.)

As a result of his successful experiment, Croesus dispatched an ambassador to Delphi to ask if he should attack the Persians. The answer was to the effect that if he crossed the River Halys a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus took this as a positive sign and he attacked, but it was his own empire that was destroyed when the Persians defeated him. Apollo had spoken truthfully.


Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Website:

By Robert Schoch, Ph.D.