Oracles played an important part in the life of the ancient world
. They were shrines were prophecies or advice were given by a god to a questioner, via a human intermediary
. At various times, certain oracles were more important than others, but the oracle of the god Apollo
retained its primacy until the Hellenistic
period. At Delphi, the responses were given by the Pythia, a preistess who entered a frenzy
, perhaps induced by chewing bay leaves. Her utterances were interpretted by preists who rendered them in verse
for the petititioners.
Oracles pronounced on a variety of problems, including matters of cult and individual morality. Political prophecies were also made, and in this respect Delphi had the greatest authority, having come to prominence during the period of colonization. At this time, potential colonists would seek its advice on choosing of a suitable site or patron deity. Later, the oracle seems to have been able to answer questions requiring a sound understanding of current affairs, perhaps implying the active involvement of its preisthood. Replies could often be ambiguous, as in the case of the Lydian king Croesus, who was told that if he attacked the Persians a great empire would fall - which turned out to be his own.
Where religion was concerned, the oracular method of learning the will of the gods was of particular importance to the Greeks because in general they had no sacred books. Apollo was most esteemed as an oracle and has several shrines apart from Delphi, notably at Thebes and, until the end of the sixth century, at Delos; Didyma in Asia Minor was also important during the Hellenistic era. Other popular oracles included those of Zeus and Asclepius at Donna and Epidauros, respectively.