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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 resembled 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 desired. 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 older 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 certain days of the month on which the priestess could be consulted and, in later times, several oracular priestesses would operate at once. However, consultants had to be careful how they interpreted the often unclear answers of the oracle.

Questions ancient Greeks asked of the oracles

Questions about happiness with future spouses, about whether or not one would have children, and about whether or not one would find a good job were all common questions asked by ancient Greeks. Other concerns were the safety of future journeys to colonies and about sacrifices to gods to ensure continued good health. These were some of the questions ancient Greeks asked of the oracles and for which they would never get 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. These included questions such as the identity of thieves, the individual who poisoned certain people, or even whether or not the child a wife was carrying was in fact that of the husband.

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

However, 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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