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THE WAY OF THE ORACLE
Recovering the Practices of the Past to Find Answers for Today
By DIANA L. PAXSON
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2012 Diana L. Paxson
All rights reserved.
SEERS AND SPEAKERS: THE SELECTION, TRAINING, AND ROLE OF AN ORACLE
Then I take, as prophetess, my place and seat. And this time may (the gods) bless the going-in much more than ever before, Both to me and to all from Hellas who are admitted, As the custom is, by fall of the lot; For I give response according as the god may lead.
Eumenides, Act I
"What is your name?" Medb said to the girl.
"I am Fedelm, and I am a womanpoet [banfáid] of Connacht."
"Where have you come from?" Medb said.
"From learning verse and vision [filidecht] in Alba," the girl said.
"Have you the imbas forosnai, the Light of Foresight?" Medb said.
"Yes I have," the girl said.
"Then look for me and see what will become of my army."
So the girl looked.
Tain Bo Cuailnge II
And now many things are revealed to me which were before hidden from me and others. I can now say that the famine will not last much longer, and that conditions will improve with the spring; and the epidemic which has persisted for so long will abate sooner than expected. And as for you, Gudrid, I shall reward you at once for the help you have given us, for I can see your whole fate [forlog] with great clarity now....
Saga of Erik the Red 4
I see two things. They are related. I see a small creek high in the mountain, fresh melting snow. The first crocus raises her head, stretches open to the sun. The rune with this is Jera. We are coming out of the dark side of the year. Like the crocus you are sprouting but have not yet budded open. Give it time, trust in the sun, and let yourself be tickled, or healed.
Answer 13 from Seidh session, January 11, 2005, Berkeley, California
Since humans first became self-aware, we've sought to understand the forces that shape our lives. The scientist collects data to predict the probability of events; the farmer uses experience to decide when to harvest. But when ordinary sources of information fail, men seek guidance by other means. Throughout history, some people have had a talent for giving advice and making predictions. The pythia at Delphi, the Irish druidess, the Greenland völva, and the modern seer are all called to serve as oracles. But who are they? How did they come to their calling, and how do they answer questions?
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Oracular practitioners come in both genders. Except when a female is specified, throughout this book, the term "seer" will be used for both. Although words such as "oracle" or "prophet" are often used to mean someone who prognosticates future events, the terms themselves have a broader meaning, derived from roots meaning "to speak" or "to see." Whichever element is foremost, both must be present. The mystic may or may not communicate his experiences; the oracle must do so. The word "oracle" itself comes from the Latin oraculum, "to speak," and can refer to the person who channels information or instructions or to the place in which the answers are given.
In Greek, the word for a seer or soothsayer is mantis. A "prophet," from the Greek prophetes (from pro "for" and phanai "to speak"), utters divine revelations or foretells future events. A "seer" or "seeress" is someone who has extraordinary moral and spiritual insights, and whose information comes in the form of visions. In the ancient Mediterranean, we find the Latin sibyl, a title given to a number of legendary prophetesses, especially the Sibyl of Cumae, and the Pythia, or Pythoness, a title derived from the serpent who once guarded the Delphic shrine.
In Viking Age Scandinavia, the spákona/spaewife (a woman) and the spámadhr (a man) entered a trance state and "spoke" answers. Oracular trance was also among the magical skills of the wisewoman called the völva, while the thul (Old Norse) or thyle (Old English) was a "speaker." The term uatis, or ovateis (modernized as "ovate"), was used by Strabo (Geographia IV, 4) for the Gaulish priestly class that included diviners and natural philosophers. In early Ireland, one of the skills that the filidh, the druidic poet, was expected to master was prophecy. In Ireland, a male seer was called a fáith, and in Britain, an offydd. In the selection from the Tain, we meet a female seer, Fedelm the banfáid.
THE ROLE OF THE ORACLE
To reconstruct oracular practice, we need to understand not only who the seers were, but also what they did. The seer perceived an answer directly and delivered it in his or her own words, while the prophet channeled or was possessed by a deity, but the kinds of questions they answered were essentially the same. The oracles responded both to individual needs and community concerns, providing counsel and consolation in times of prosperity and uncertainty. They do the same today.
THE MYSTIQUE OF DELPHI
From the earliest times, we find mention of prophets and oracles in the Mediterranean world. One of them is Cassandra, a Trojan princess who was a temple seer before she refused Apollo's attentions and was cursed to utter prophecies that no one would believe. Even more interesting is Tiresias, a prophet of Thebes. In the Bacchae of Euripides, he tries to warn King Pentheus that he must accept the new cult of Dionysos. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, he unwillingly reveals to King Oedipus that the young king's own inadvertent sin is the cause of the plague currently threatening the town. The prophecies come from Delphi, but it is Tiresias who interprets them.
Although Delphi seems to have been an oracular center as early as the Mycenean period, its great fame developed after the Dorian migration into Hellas and the Peloponnese, when it was taken over by the cult of Apollo and endured for a thousand years. As Dempsey puts it in his comprehensive and enthusiastic survey of the influence of the Delphic oracle,
Greek and barbarian alike consulted it: envoys came from Asia and Libya and distant Italy seeking advice on all matters of moment. The framing of laws, the founding of colonies, the making and unmaking of kings, the beginning of wars, the healing of disease or pestilence—these and such-like questions were submitted to the unerring judgment of the omniscient Apollo. From the earliest times the Oracle of Delphi influenced the history of noble houses, aye, and of whole nations. The Delphic Oracle of Apollo, as no other oracle of antiquity, long inspired a living faith, and for centuries retained its credit unimpaired. (Dempsey 1918, 39)
One reason for this popularity may have been its location, for although its impressive setting on the slope below Mount Parnassus requires a climb, the area is accessible from both the north and east and the Peloponnese. As its reputation grew, the many rich gifts with which grateful questioners adorned it would have added to its appeal, and it didn't hurt that Pindar, one of the most renowned of the Greek poets, was a devotee. Still, none of that would have mattered if the seeresses had not established an enviable track record of useful answers and a reputation for integrity.
As we shall see in the discussion of oracular answers in Chapter IV, many of the questions were personal. However, a fair proportion of the recorded answers were given to cities whose questions affected the whole community. Even Apollo could not impose political unity on the Greeks, but his answers helped to create a consensus regarding religion. Nor was prophecy all the site had to offer. Delphi hosted numerous festivals and the Pythian Games, which featured artistic as well as athletic competitions.
During the first centuries of the Roman Empire, another important site was the great temple of Apollo at Claros, on what is now the coast of Turkey. Visitors inscribed their names, origin, and the dates of their visits on the marble blocks of the sanctuary. Where pilgrims from mainland Greece visited Delphi, Claros served clients from all over the Near East. Though the prophet here was male, the answers were very similar to those given at Delphi.
BARDS AND OVATES
The Druid order was divided into three specialties: the bards, the ovates (variously given as uatis or euhages/orates), and those druids who were mystics and philosophers. In later Irish lore, the bards serve as seers. The Classical sources indicate that the druids also served as judges and arbiters. According to Diogenes Laertius, the Druids, "make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behaviour maintained." (Vitae I:5, introduction, in Matthews 1996, 20), which sounds like the kind of response given by an oracle. Female druids are said to have given impromptu prophecies to the future Roman emperors Diocletian and Aurelian. Among the officers required to attend upon King Cormac was a druid, "to offer sacrifices, and to forebode good or evil to the country by means of his skill and magic ..." (Keating, in Matthews 1996).
In addition to the divination accomplished as part of a ritual or sacrifice or through the interpretation of auguries, the druids were noted for spontaneous prophecies, and it is these that we find most often in the tales. In the eighth-century Compert Conchoboir, we find an impromptu prophecy by the druid Cathbad. The king's daughter Nes asks, "What is the present hour lucky for?" "For begetting a king on a queen," he replies. Seeing no other man nearby, she takes him inside, and nine months later she gives birth to Conchobar, the king who will later command Cuchulain in the Tain Bo Cuailgne. Cathbad also foretells that the newborn Dierdre will bring great misfortune and mischief to the kingdom.
In another early tale, the warrior-woman Scathach uses the imbas forosnai ("the light of foresight") to chant a long poem foretelling Cuchulain's future. As seen in the quotes at the beginning of this chapter, the ban-fáith Fedelm also uses the imbas forasnai to answer Maeve's question about the outcome of the war against Ulster.
In the histories of Tacitus, we learn that during the first century the Germans honored a seeress called Veleda,
a maiden of the tribe of the Bructeri, who possessed extensive dominion; for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germans and the destruction of the legions. (Histories IV, 61)
She is said to have lived by the Lippe River on the German side of the Rhine, but she was influential throughout central Germany. When the Batavian chieftain Civilis rebelled against Rome, she became his chief advisor. Like the seers of the Mediterranean, Veleda stayed in one place, where she received questioners, and her answers, like theirs, determined the fate of nations.
The Viking Age völva operated on a smaller scale and moved from place to place rather than requiring querents to come to her. Chapter 4 of the Saga of Erik the Red describes an oracular ritual at a farmstead in Greenland:
A woman named Thorbjorg was in the settlement. She was a prophetess [spákona] and called the "Little Völva." She had nine sisters, all of whom were prophetesses [spákonur]. She was the only one left alive. It was Thorbjorg's custom to go to feasts in the winter, and people invited her to their homes most who wanted foreknowledge of their destiny [forlög], or that of the season.
The situation was similar in mainland Scandinavia. In Nornageststhattr 11, Gestr tells King Olaf that when he was born, "Volvur were travelling around the countryside. They were called spákonur, and they prophesied men's fates. Therefore people gave them lodgings and prepared feasts for them and gave them gifts upon their departure. My father did this too, and they came to his place with their entourage." We find similar descriptions in the Arrow-Odd's Saga 2 and the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason in the Flateyjarbok.
It would appear that whereas each area of the Mediterranean world had its permanent oracular site, in the North, a seidh-group would operate in each region, moving from the steading of one jarl or prosperous farmer to another to answer questions of general importance, such as the prospects for a good harvest, and personal interest, such as marriage.
THE CALLED AND THE CHOSEN
Where did (and do) these seers and prophets come from, and how did they learn their craft?
Many assume that psychic sensitivity, like perfect pitch or the ability to draw, is inborn. While some individuals have innate abilities in these areas, even the born genius will not make effective use of them without training and discipline, and the gifts of the natural psychic can be a curse if they are not trained. But talent, in any field, is not an either-or matter. In Trance-Portation, I presented a sequence of exercises to develop the controlled ability to do trance work. These basic disciplines can be directed to specific applications, such as oracular practice. Changing one's state of consciousness is an innate human ability. Just as those of moderate talent can be taught to make music or paint, many, with the proper support and training, can achieve a state in which they can answer questions with a deeper wisdom than they have while in an ordinary state of mind.
Both independent and community-supported oracles have served their people well. In general, prophets who function independently and spontaneously have a great deal of natural talent and/or long and intensive training behind them. On the other hand, a good support team and a powerful ritual can enable a less-experienced seer to serve.
Prophets are a common figure in Greek legend. According to Hesiod, Tiresias of Thebes made the mistake of disturbing a pair of copulating snakes and was punished by Hera with transformation into a woman, in which shape he married and had children, including a daughter called Manto (meaning "prophecy"). After seven years, he encountered another pair of snakes, guarded them, and was changed back again. However, when Zeus and Hera asked him to give evidence regarding whether men or women got more pleasure from sex, he agreed with Zeus that women got more and was struck blind by Hera. In compensation, Zeus gave him the gift of foresight and the life span of seven men.
As a two-sexed ecstatic with serpent connections, Tiresias has a shamanic aspect to his character. He prophesies to Odysseus in the land of the dead and, in the Classical Greek plays, uses a number of prophetic techniques, including vision, augury from the songs of birds, and interpretation of images in the smoke of burnt offerings. His prophecies are usually enigmatic, and only after the tragic conclusion does their meaning become clear.
The priests and priestesses who served the oracles in the Classical period, on the other hand, were virtually anonymous, leaving the emphasis on the ritual and setting. Those we know of were local people from families that had served the oracle for generations. The most famous are the pythias of Delphi. What we know of their lives is culled from a variety of Classical sources, especially the writings of Plutarch, who served as a priest at Delphi for a time.
The pythias had to be freeborn citizens of the town. In an institution that lasted over a thousand years, there were inevitably changes. The early oracular priestesses were apparently required to be maidens, but after a querent attempted to seduce the pythia, the priestesses were chosen from among the postmenopausal women of good character, who were presumably less susceptible. According to Diodorus, however, they dressed in the style of a maiden. Plutarch tells us that
she who now serves the God has been born as respectably as any man here, and has lived as good and orderly a life; but having been reared in the house of small farmer folk, she brings nothing with her from art or from practice or faculty whatsoever, as she goes down into the sanctuary. As Xenophon thinks that the bride should step into her husband's home having seen as little as may be, and heard as little, so she, ignorant and untried in almost all things, and a true virgin in soul, is associated with the God. (Pythia XXII)
Excerpted from THE WAY OF THE ORACLE by DIANA L. PAXSON. Copyright © 2012 Diana L. Paxson. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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