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What Questions Did Ancient Greeks Ask the Oracles?

View of Delph
View of Delphi. In ancient times this was a sacred place that served as the seat of Pythia, the great oracle who was consulted about important decisions. Credit. Wikipedia/Public domain.

Ancient Greeks were curious people and they would frequently ask questions about the world and themselves, as the writings of philosophers of the times indicate. At the same time, in some aspects at least, they were like modern people who try to discern their own futures by searching for answers from astrologers, coffee grounds, tea leaves, or psychics.

In ancient days, Greeks went to oracles to obtain the answers they wanted. After extensive research, Professor Mika Kajava from the University of Helsinki found some of the most common questions ancient Greeks asked the oracles. 

Kajava found that the concerns and wishes of ancient Greeks were not very different from the ones modern Greeks have. And like today’s Christian Orthodox faithful who pray to God and ask for guidance and answers, the Greeks of the old days ran to the oracles asking very similar questions.

Priestess Pythia, the oracle of Delphi

The Delphic oracle was the most prestigious, with both kings and common people asking their questions about their future plans and waiting to receive a response about what the gods thought of them. The Pythia, who presided over the holy sanctuary of Delphi, is the best known priestess, or oracle.

Lycurgus Consulting the priestess Pythia at the Greek Oracle of Delphi
Lycurgus Consulting the Priestess Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain

Delphi became so busy that long lines would form on the certain days of the month on which the priestess could be consulted and, in later times, several oracular priestesses would operate at once. But consultants had to be careful how they interpreted the — often unclear — answers of the oracle.

Questions ancient Greeks asked of the oracles

“Will I be happy with the woman I’m marrying?” “Will I have children?” “Will I find a good job?” “Will my next journey to the colonies be dangerous?” “To which gods should I sacrifice to stay in good health?” These are some of the questions ancient Greeks asked the oracles — never getting a clear answer.

Some of the people visited the oracles asking questions in order to solve crimes and mysteries, expecting the wisdom of the gods and their representatives on earth, such as “Who stole my sheep?” “Who poisoned Aristovoula?” “Is the child my wife is carrying mine?”

A very common question ancient Greeks asked the oracles was: “To which god should I pray, in order to see my business prosper?”

But the answers were almost always enigmatic. King Croesus of Lydia asked the oracle whether or not he should go to war on his neighboring kingdom. The oracle replied that if he went to war, a great kingdom would fall. Croesus interpreted this as being his enemy’s — but it turned out to be his own kingdom.

When the Persian Army under Xerxes approached Athens, the Athenians wanted to know whether to fight the Persians, and of course they went to Delphi to ask the Pythia.  Ambassadors also consulted the oracles as to what policies were the best to pursue.

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