Sacred Tree, Speak to Me

Appendix Proverbiana

“The oak’s pollution”: A riddle in Euripides’ Erekhtheus about the transgression of the Thebans against the oracle in Dodona. The proverb “Boiotian prophets” also comes from this.

Μίασμα δρυός: παρ’ Εὐριπίδῃ ἐν ᾿Ερεχθεῖ αἰνιττόμενον τὸ Θηβαίων παρανόμημα εἰς τὸ ἐν Δωδώνῃ μαντεῖον, ἀφ’ οὗ καὶ παροιμία Βοιωτοῖς μαντεύσαις.

Does anyone know what the Thebans did to Dodona? Herodotus talks about the oracle being founded by women abducted from Egyptian Thebes…

Suda, s.v. Δωδώνη

“Dodonê: A city in Pelasgian Thesprotia. An oak tree stood in it near which there was an oracle of women prophets. When people approached for prophecies, the oak tree moved, making sounds. Then the women intoned that “Zeus says these things”. A statue stood in a high place, holding up a staff. A cauldron stood near it too. The statue used to hit the cauldron and it would issue a melodious ring. But the voices of the demons are senseless.”

Δωδώνη: πόλις ἐν τῇ Θεσπρωτίδι Πελασγίᾳ. ἐν ᾗ ἵστατο δρῦς, ἐν ᾗ μαντεῖον ἦν γυναικῶν προφητίδων. καὶ εἰσιόντων τῶν μαντευομένων ἐκινεῖτο δῆθεν ἡ δρῦς ἠχοῦσα: αἱ δὲ ἐφθέγγοντο, ὅτι τάδε λέγει ὁ Ζεύς. καὶ ἀνδριὰς ἵστατο ἐν ὕψει ῥάβδον κατέχων, καὶ παρ’ αὐτὸν λέβης ἵστατο: καὶ ἔπαιεν ὁ ἀνδριὰς τὸν λέβητα, ἐξ οὗ ἦχός τις ἐναρμόνιος ἀπετελεῖτο. αἱ δὲ τῶν δαιμόνων φωναὶ ἄναρθροί εἰσιν.

The oracle is mentioned in the Iliad and the Odyssey 19.296-299:

“He was claiming that he went to Dodona so he might hear
The will of Zeus from the high-leafed divine tree
How he might making his homecoming to his dear paternal land
When he has been away for long already, either openly or secrely”

τὸν δ’ ἐς Δωδώνην φάτο βήμεναι, ὄφρα θεοῖο
ἐκ δρυὸς ὑψικόμοιο Διὸς βουλὴν ἐπακούσαι,
ὅππως νοστήσειε φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ἤδη δὴν ἀπεών, ἢ ἀμφαδὸν ἦε κρυφηδόν.

From Fritz Graf’s entry on Dodona in Brill’s New Pauly:

“Our literary sources only partly concur with this. Hom. Il. 16,233-235 is familiar with the Selli, barefooted and living on the ground, as guardians of the oracle, Od. 19,296-299 with the (talking) oak as the source of knowledge about Zeus’ will (similarly Hes. fr. 240,8; 319; Aesch. PV 832). The oak’s ability to speak is presupposed in the myth of the talking beam made of Dodonian oak which was part of the ship Argo (Apollod. 1,110). Soph. Trach. 171f. indicates two doves on the Sacred Oak as the source of the oracle; likewise, the myths of the sanctuary’s origins link the Sacred Oak with a (talking) dove (Proxenos FGrH 703 F 7; Philostr. Imag. 2,33; Schol. Il 16,234). Hdt. 2,54-57 on the other hand interprets the doves allegorically as priestesses, and in several later sources ‘dove’ (peleiás) is explained as a term for the priestesses of D.

If the early testimonies speak of oak and doves as the givers of signs, that tallies with the ancient view that D. gave oracles in signs and not in words (Str. 7 fr. 1 Chr.), but is not consistent with extant texts and other information on oracles in prose (Dem. Or. 21,53) or hexameters (Paus. 10,12,10). This suggests an originally very archaic and perhaps pre-Greek oracle (Zeus Pelasgikos: Hom. Il. 16,233; Pelasgians: Hdt. 2,54), that was cared for by a priesthood characterized by its particularly marginalized ritual and that expressed itself through natural signs (oak), later switched to priestesses (thus Str. 7,7,12) and provided answers in textual form, in keeping with Greek practice elsewhere.”


Image result for Sacred Oak at Dodona
There is an Oak in Dodona now. Probably not the original!

One thought on “Sacred Tree, Speak to Me

  1. Love your humor, pointing out that the oak is not the original!

    I DID hear guides point out the original olive tree by the Erechtheum, after relating the story of the contest for naming the city. A tourist questioned the guide, as the tree was quite thin. The guide stared at her with a withering glare, and silenced her, “Madam, do you know how slowly olive trees grow?”

    In reality that tree was planted in 1922 by American archaeological Burt Hodge Hill, on George Washington’s Birthday. He was excavating there and came upon a water spout, knew the naming-story, and made the commemorative planting!


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