The ancient Greek sanctuary and theater of Dodona are part of a uniquely historic site in the country, home to the oldest oracle, which even predated that of the more universally-known Delphi. Known in Doric Greek as Δωδώνα, or Dōdṓnā, and in Ionic and Attic Greek as Δωδώνη, it is located in Epirus in northwestern Greece.
The historian Herodotus stated that the oracle there dated all the way back to the second millennium BC. Even Homer mentioned Dodona, saying that there was an oracle of Zeus there. Situated in a remote region, far from the main Greek poleis or city states, it was considered second only to the Oracle of Delphi in prestige.
Aristotle considered the region around Dodona to have been part of Hellas—even the region from which the Hellenes originated. The oracle, first under the control of the Thesprotians before it passed into the hands of the Molossians, remained an important religious sanctuary until the rise of Christianity during the Late Roman era.
During classical antiquity, according to various accounts, priestesses and priests in the sacred grove interpreted the rustling of the oak (or beech) leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken by people. According to a new interpretation, the oracular sound may even have originated from bronze objects hanging from oak branches, which sounded with the wind blowing, similar to a wind chime.
According to the great historian Nicholas Hammond, Dodona was originally an oracle devoted to a Mother Goddess (identified at other sites with Rhea or Gaia, but here called Dione) who was joined and partially supplanted in historical times by the Greek deity Zeus.
According to the Oracle, his consort was said to be Dione, by whom the Iliad states that he fathered Aphrodite. Although the earliest inscriptions at the site date back to c. 550–500 BC, archaeological excavations conducted for more than a century have recovered artifacts as early as the Mycenaean era (1600-1100 BC).
Dodona was a holy site from time immemorial
Religious cults at Dodona were already well established in some form during this Late Bronze Age, or Mycenaean, period. During the post-Mycenaean era, known as the “Greek Dark Ages,” there is little evidence of activity at Dodona; however, there was a resumption of contact between Dodona and southern Greece during the Archaic period in the 8th century BC with the presence of bronze votive offerings, including tripods, from southern Greek cities.
Archaeologists have found Illyrian dedications and offerings that were received by the oracle during the 7th century BC. Dodona served as a religious and oracular center mainly for northern groups until the year 650 BC; only after that time did it become important for those who lived in the south as well.
Zeus was worshipped at Dodona as “Zeus Naios” or “Naos” (god of the spring below the oak in the temenos or sanctuary, like the Naiads) and as “Zeus Bouleus” (Counsellor). According to Plutarch, the worship of Jupiter (Zeus) at Dodona was begun by Deucalion and Pyrrha.
Many dedicatory inscriptions that have been recovered from the site mention both “Dione” and “Zeus Naios.”
The earliest literary mention of Dodona is in Homer, and only Zeus is mentioned in this account. In the Iliad (written circa 750 BC), Achilles prays to “High Zeus, Lord of Dodona, Pelasgian, living afar off, brooding over wintry Dodona.”
Historians note that, significantly, this demonstrates that Zeus could be invoked from a distance, not just in one particular area dedicated to his worship. No buildings are mentioned as being there at the time, and the priests (called Selloi) slept on the ground with unwashed feet.
The oracle also features in another passage involving Odysseus, giving a story of his visit to Dodona. Odysseus’s words indicate that the site was already of great importance and that it was usual to go there to consult with Zeus on personal problems one might be experiencing.
In the epic, Odysseus tells the swineherd Eumaeus (possibly giving him a false account) that he (Odysseus) had been seen among the Thesprotians, having gone to inquire of the oracle at Dodona whether he should return to Ithaca openly or in secret (as the disguised Odysseus is actually doing).
Odysseus later repeated the same tale to Penelope after he returned to her, who may not at that point have seen through his disguise.
Dodona may have been oracle of Gaia, or Earth Goddess
According to some scholars, Dodona was originally an oracle of the Mother Goddess attended by priestesses. She was identified at other sites as Rhea or Gaia. The oracle also was shared by Dione (whose name simply means “deity”). By classical times, Dione was relegated to a minor role elsewhere in classical Greece, being made into an aspect of Zeus’s more usual consort, who was by that time referred to as Hera.
However, she was not served in those times at Dodona under that name.
According to some archaeologists, a small stone temple to Dione was added to the site sometime during the 4th century BC. By the time Euripides mentioned Dodona, in the fragment of a play, “Melanippe,” and Herodotus wrote about the oracle, there were priestesses at the site.
The supposed holiness of the oak grove at Dodona was so renowned that they were even mentioned in the “Argonautica,” written by Apollonius of Rhodes, a retelling of the original story of Jason and the Argonauts.
In his version, Jason’s ship, the Argo, had a gift of prophecy, since one of its oaken timbers was from a tree from the sacred grove at Dodona.
Origin of “doves” as priestesses serving at Dodona
Herodotus, in his work, the “Histories,” (2:54–57) states that he was told by priests at Egyptian Thebes in the 5th century BC “that two priestesses had been carried away from Thebes by Phoenicians; one, they said they had heard, was taken away and sold in Libya, the other in Hellas; these women, they said, were the first founders of places of divination in the aforesaid countries.”
Herodotus follows with what he was told by the prophetesses, called “peleiades,” or “doves” at Dodona itself:
Two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine.
Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true.
Herodotus then explains the origin of the term “doves,” saying “I expect that these women were called ‘doves’ by the people of Dodona because they spoke a strange language, and the people thought it like the cries of birds; then the woman spoke what they could understand, and that is why they say that the dove uttered human speech; as long as she spoke in a foreign tongue, they thought her voice was like the voice of a bird.
“For how could a dove utter the speech of men? The tale that the dove was black signifies that the woman was Egyptian,” Herodotus said.
The goddess Aphrodite’s chariot was also drawn by a flock of doves, perhaps indicating a connection to these female oracles.
Thesprotia, on the coast west of Dodona, could have been reached by seagoing Phoenicians, making the story of the importation of the Egyptian women a plausible one.
The Pelasgi: “Earliest of all peoples who have held dominion in Greece”
According to the Greek geographer Strabo, who was born in 64 AD, the oracle was founded by the Pelasgi, who were mentioned in the Iliad, written in 750 BC.
Strabo noted that “This oracle, according to Ephorus, was founded by the Pelasgi. And the Pelasgi are called the earliest of all peoples who have held dominion in Greece.”
According to his understanding, however, prophecies at Dodona were originally uttered by males.
“At the outset, it is true, those who uttered the prophecies were men, but later on three old women were designated as prophets, after Dione also had been designated as temple-associate of Zeus,” Strabo said.
The introduction of female attendants probably took place in the fifth century BC since the timing of the change is clearly prior to Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC with his narrative about the doves and Egypt.
Origin of words “Greek,” Hellenes” may have been from Dodona area
Aristotle, in his “Meteorologica,” places ‘Hellas’ in the regions around Dodona and the Achelous, saying it was inhabited by “the Selloi, who were formerly called Graikoi, but now Hellenes.”
Thus, some scholars believe that the origin of the words “Hellenes,” “Hellas,” and “Greeks” was from Dodona.
Sometime around the year 290 BC, King Pyrrhus made Dodona the religious capital of his realm, making it much grander by rebuilding the Temple of Zeus, constructing many other buildings and adding a festival featuring athletic games, musical contests, and drama.
At that time, a wall was built around the oracle itself and the holy tree, as well as temples to Dione and Heracles.
Dodona undergoes invasions, destruction, rebuilding
However, in 219 BC, the Aetolians, under the leadership of General Dorimachus, invaded the area, burning the temples to the ground. Later in the 3rd century BC, King Philip V of Macedon (along with the Epirotes) reconstructed all the buildings at Dodona.
In the year 167 BC, Dodona was again destroyed, this time by the Romans under the military leader Aemilius Paulus; however, the city was later rebuilt by Emperor Augustus in the year 31 BC.
By the time the traveler and geographer Pausanias visited Dodona in the 2nd century AD, the sacred grove had been reduced to a single oak. In the year 241, a priest named Poplius Memmius Leon organized the Naia festival at Dodona. In 362, the Emperor Julian consulted the oracle prior to his military campaigns against the Persians.
Pilgrims were still known to consult the oracle at Dodona until the year 391 to 392 AD, when Emperor Theodosius closed all pagan temples, banned all pagan religious activities, and cut down the ancient oak tree at the sanctuary of Zeus there.
Although the surviving town was insignificant, like so many other areas in Europe and the East, the pagan site which had been viewed as so holy since time immemorial must have retained a religious significance for Christians.
It had grown as a center of Christianity to the point that a bishop from Dodona named Theodorus attended the First Council of Ephesus, which took place in the year 431 AD.
Many of the priceless movable objects found at the many ancient sites at Dodona are now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and the archaeological museum in the nearby city of Ioannina. The Acropolis Museum also created an exhibit called The Oracle of Sounds in 2016, recreating the ancient oak grove at Dodona.