All oracles were originally delivered by the Earth-goddess, whose authority was so great that patriarchal invaders made a practice of stealing her shrines and either appointing priests or retaining the priestesses in their own service. Thus Zeus at Dodona, and Ammon in the Oasis of Siwwa, took over the cult of the oracular oak, sacred to Dia or Dione—as the Hebrew Jehovah did that of Ishtar’s oracular acacia—and Apollo captured the shrines of Delphi and Argos. At Argos, the prophetess was allowed full freedom; at Delphi, a priest intervened between prophetess and votary, translating her incoherent utterances into hexameters; at Dodona, both the Dove-priestesses and Zeus’s male prophets delivered oracles.

Mother Earth’s shrine at Delphi was founded by the Cretans, who left their sacred music, ritual, dances, and calendar as a legacy to the Hellenes. Her Cretan sceptre, the labrys, or double-axe, named the priestly corporation at Delphi, the Labryadae, which was still extant in Classical times. The temple made from bees-wax and feathers refers to the goddess as Bee and as Dove; the temple of fern recalls the magical properties attributed to fern-seed at the summer and winter solstices (Sir James Frazer devotes several pages to the subject in his Golden Bough); the shrine of laurel recalls the laurel-leaf chewed by the prophetess and her companions in their orgies. Daphnis is a shortened form of Daphoenissa (‘the bloody one’), as Daphne is of Daphoene. The shrine of bronze engulfed by the earth may merely mark the fourth stage of a Delphic song that, like ‘London Bridge is Broken Down’, told of the various unsuitable materials with which the shrine was successively built; but it may also refer to an underground tholos, the tomb of a hero who was incarnate in the python. The tholos, a beehive-shaped ghost-house, appears to be of African origin, and introduced into Greece by way of Palestine. The Witch of Endor presided at a similar shrine, and the ghost of Adam gave oracles at Hebron. Philostratus refers to the golden birds in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana and describes them as siren-like wrynecks; but Pindar calls them nightingales (Fragment quoted by Athenaeus). Whether the birds represented oracular nightingales, or wrynecks used as love-charms and rain-inducers, is disputable.

Inspection of entrails seems to have been an Indo—European mantic device. Divination by the throw of four knucklebone dice was perhaps alphabetical in origin: since ‘signs’, not numbers, were said to be marked on the only four sides of each bone which could turn up. Twelve consonants and four vowels (as in the divinatory Irish Ogham called ‘O’Sullivan’s’) are the simplest form to which the Greek alphabet can be reduced. But, in Classical times, numbers only were marked—1, 3, 4, and 6 on each knucklebone—and the meanings of all their possible combinations had been codified. Prophecy from dreams is a universal practice.

Apollo’s priests exacted virginity from the Pythian priestesses at Delphi, who were regarded as Apollo’s brides; but when one of was scandalously seduced by a votary, they had thereafter to be about fifty years old on installation, though still dressing as brides. Bull’s blood was thought to be highly poisonous, because of its magical potency: the blood of sacred bulls, sometimes used to consecrate a tribe, as in Exodus, was mixed with great quantities of water before being sprinkled on the fields as a fertilizer. The Priestess of Earth however, could drink whatever Mother Earth herself drank.

Hera, Pasiphaë, and Ino were all titles of the Triple-goddess, interdependence of whose persons was symbolised by the tripod which her priestess sat.

The procedure at the oracle of Trophonius—which Pausanias self visited—recalls Aeneas’s descent, mistletoe in hand, to Tartarus, where he consulted his father Anchises, and Odysseus’s earlier consultation of Teiresias; it also shows the relevance of these myths to a common form of initiation rite in which the novice suffers a mock-death, receives mystical instruction from a pretending ghost, and is then reborn in new clan, or secret society. Plutarch remarks that the Trophoniads mystagogues in the dark den—belong to the pre-Olympian age of Cronus, and correctly couples them with the Idaean Dactyls who formed the Samothracian Mysteries.

Black poplar was sacred to the Death-goddess at Pagae, and Persephone had a black poplar grove in the Far West (Pausanias).

(Robert Graves, The Greek Myths)

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