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Ioannina Prefecture, Epirus

The deluge in the time of Deucalion, for instance, took place chiefly in the Greek world and in it especially about ancient Hellas, the country about Dodona and the Achelous, a river which has often changed its course. Here the Selli dwelt and those who were formerly called Graeci and now Hellenes. Aristotle, Meteorogy Book 1

At Dodona (ancient Greek: Δοδώνη, modern Dodoni) in Epirus, northwestern Greece, was a prehistoric oracle devoted to the Greek god, Zeus and the Mother Goddess identified at other sites with Rhea or Gaia, but here called Dione. The shrine of Dodona was the oldest Hellenic oracle, according to the fifth-century historian Herodotus and in fact dates to pre-Hellenic times, perhaps as early as the second millennium BC. Priests and priestesses in the sacred grove interpreted the rustling of the oak (or beech) leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken. Greek oracles are often misconstrued as having predicted the future.

At Dodona, Zeus joined a pre-Greek name to his own and was worshipped there as "Zeus Molossos" or as "Zeus Naios." Originally an oracle of the Mother Goddess, the oracle was shared by Zeus and Dione (whose name, like "Zeus," simply means "deity"). Many dedicatory inscriptions recovered from the site mention both "Zeus Naios" and "Dione." Elsewhere in Classical Greece, Dione was relegated by Classical times to a minor role, an aspect of Zeus's more usual consort, Hera.

Zeus, king, lord of Dodona, Pelasgian,
you who live far off, ruling cold Dodona,
around whom live the Selli, your prophets,  
with unwashed feet, who sleep upon the ground
, Homer Iliad, Book 16

When Homer wrote the Iliad (circa 750 BC), no buildings were present, and the priests slept on the ground with ritually unwashed feet. Not until the fourth century BCE, was a small stone temple to Zeus added to the site. By the time Euripides mentioned Dodona (fragmentary play Melanippe), and Herodotus wrote about the oracle, priestesses had been restored. Though it never eclipsed the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, Dodona gained a reputation far beyond Greece. In Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, a retelling of an older story of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason's ship, the "Argo", had the gift of prophecy, because it contained an oak timber spirited from Dodona.

Dodona Theater, the Greek actor Nezer in Wasps of Aristophanes

In the third century BC, King Pyrrhus grandly rebuilt the Temple of Zeus, and added many other buildings and a festival featuring athletic games, musical contests, and drama enacted in a theatre. A wall was built around the oracle itself and the holy tree, as well as temples to Heracles and Dione.

In 219 BC, the Aetolians invaded and burned the temple to the ground. Though King Philip V of Macedon rebuilt all the buildings bigger and better than before, and added a stadium for annual games, the oracle at Dodona never fully recovered. In 167 BC, Dodona was once again destroyed and later rebuilt 31 BC by Emperor Augustus. By the time the traveller Pausanias visited Dodona in the second century AD, the sacred grove had been reduced to a single oak (Description of Greece, I, xviii). Pilgrims still consulted the oracle until AD 391, when Christians cut down the holy tree. Though the surviving town was insignificant, the long-hallowed pagan site must have retained significance, for a Christian Bishop of Dodona attended the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.

Herodotus and the origins of Dodona

Herodotus (Histories 2:54-57) was told by priests at Egyptian Thebes in the 4th century BC "that two priestesses had been carried away from Thebes by Phoenicians; one, they said they had heard was taken away and sold in Libya, the other in Hellas; these women, they said, were the first founders of places of divination in the aforesaid countries." The simplest analysis: Egypt, for Greeks and for Egyptians themselves was a spring of human culture of all but immeasurable antiquity. This mythic element says that the oracles of Ammon at the oasis of Siwa in Libya and of Dodona in Thessaly were equally old, but similarly transmitted by Phoenician culture, and that the seeresses — Herodotus does not say "sibyls" — were women.

Herodotus follows with what he was told by the prophetesses, called peleiades ("doves") at Dodona:

"that two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true."

In the simplest analysis, this was a confirmation of the tradition in Egypt. The element of the dove may be an attempt to account for a folk etymology applied to the archaic name of the sacred women that no longer made sense. Was the pel- element in their name actually connected with "black" or "muddy" root elements in names like "Peleus" or "Pelops"? Is that why the doves were black? Herodotus adds:

"But my own belief about it is this. If the Phoenicians did in fact carry away the sacred women and sell one in Libya and one in Hellas, then, in my opinion, the place where this woman was sold in what is now Hellas, but was formerly called Pelasgia, was Thesprotia; and then, being a slave there, she established a shrine of Zeus under an oak that was growing there; for it was reasonable that, as she had been a handmaid of the temple of Zeus at Thebes, she would remember that temple in the land to which she had come. After this, as soon as she understood the Greek language, she taught divination; and she said that her sister had been sold in Libya by the same Phoenicians who sold her.

"I expect that these women were called 'doves' by the people of Dodona because they spoke a strange language, and the people thought it like the cries of birds; then the woman spoke what they could understand, and that is why they say that the dove uttered human speech; as long as she spoke in a foreign tongue, they thought her voice was like the voice of a bird. For how could a dove utter the speech of men? The tale that the dove was black signifies that the woman was Egyptian."

Thesprotia, on the coast west of Dodona, would have been available to the sea-going Phoenicians, whom Herodotus' readers would not have expected to have penetrated as far inland as Dodona. Christians will be particularly arrested by the doves as vehicles of divine spirit.

Greek oracular inscription on lead from Dodona. From C. Carapanos, Dodone et ses ruines, Paris, 1878, pl. LX, 1.

The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs' capsule history of the oracle and theatre of Dodona. (http://www.mfa.gr/english/greece/through_time/archaeology/ancient_sites/dodoni.html)

1 Acropolis, 2 Theater, 3 Stadium, 4 Bouleuterion, 10 Temple of Aphrodite, 11 Temple of Zeus, 13 Temple of Dione [Source]

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