Monday, July 4, 2011

The Oracle at Claros by Robin Lane Fox

“Apollo at Colophon” is the god of the great oracular shrine at Claros, a major seat of the gods’ wisdom in the second and third centuries A.D. We have come to know it through excavation and finds of inscriptions. With their help, we can recapture the course of a consultation, for the ruins of the site support our best ancient description, a paragraph by Iamblichus, written in the early fourth century. He was not writing from personal experience, but he had found a good authority.

Visitors to the temple at Claros entered the sacred valley and approached through the big triple gate which stood before the shrine. Beyond it stretched the sacred grove, where there is now only dust, and a hundred yards or so to the north stood the alter and Doric temple of Apollo. The approaches were lined with statues on stone bases, many of which were statues of Romans from the late Republican age. The alter was enormous, as were the colossal statues of Apollo, Artemis and Leto, up to twenty feet high. On coins, we can see the particular type of Apollo, a huge half-naked divinity, seated at ease, whose right hand holds laurel and whose left rests on a lyre.

The god, we are told, was questioned by night, although not every night was fit for an inquiry. While visitors waited for a sacred night to fall, they prepared for the process which lay ahead. At the beginning of the second century A.D., we only know of a “prophet” in the inscriptions that have so far been published. This single spokesman fits the picture of the oracle which was drawn by the historian Tacitus, himself a governor of Asia Minor, and thus able, if he wished, to learn about the site. A priest, he said, was chosen from a fixed number of families and “generally summoned from Miletus.” This priest heard only the number and names of the consultants; then he went down into a “cave” and drank the sacred water. Although he was “generally ignorant of letters and poetry”, he gave responses on the “topics which each questioner had in mind.” Tacitus implies that the man’s method of answering was something of a miracle, and we must try to account for it. If the priest did not ask for his questioners’ questions, his verse responses can only have been general and rather stereotyped. Perhaps the god kept to certain familiar verses and “inspired” his priest to utter one or other set. One hostile visitor, Oenomaus the Cynic, called at the site, perhaps c. 120 A.D., and alleged that the same obscure verses were given out to different questioners.

By the mid-130s, however, the inscriptions reveal a change. The prophet is joined by a “thespode”, or “singer of oracles,” and unlike the prophet, this thespode serves for life. He brought a greater expertise, and the giving of the oracle was split between a priest, a prophet, the thespode and a secretary. How are they likely to have shared out the work?

Iamblichus tells us that “many religious rites” were performed before the god was consulted. A sacrifice on the great alter was surely one of them, and a natural official for this rites was the priest. We know, too, from inscriptions that some of the visitors were initiated into a mystery rite, apparently as a preliminary to the consultation, As elsewhere, these rites would involve expense: one leader of a city’s delegation to the oracle assisted the initiation of all the young choirboys who he led, “out of love of honor and the god,” and presumably paid the bill himself. These secret rites greatly enhanced the occasion. Meanwhile, the envoys were waiting for the appointed night, and while they waited, they talked. No doubt they talked to the priest and the secretary and probably the thespode, too, telling them about their city and their problems, and starting the simple process by which a good counseling service works. They gave away enough to suggest and answer before they asked the question for which they had come. The temple staff listened innocently and so, therefore, did Apollo. There was no conscious fraud, no insincerity. Mortals could not bother gods without preparation, as god would rebuke a questioner who asked to abruptly for too much.

As the night approached, the prophet himself was absent. Iamblichus tells us that he fasted for a day and a night before the consultation began, and he also tells us of his withdrawal to “shrines untrodden by the crowds,” where he abstained from human business and prepared to receive the god “untarnished.”

When the sacred night fell and the lamps had been lit in the sanctuary, the staff and questioners met by torchlight before Apollo’s temple. Above them loomed the colossal statues of the gods. The prophet reappeared, and together they prepared for the journey to the inner shrine. “Entering” or ‘crossing of the threshold” was an extra ceremony which only a few of the clients chose, on the evidence, those who had been initiated into the mystery’s rites.

By the light of torches, the prophet, thespode and perhaps the secretary stooped into one of the two low tunnels which ran underground to Apollo’s sacred spring. They bent themselves for a journey through a low, narrow corridor which was roofed in marble of a deep shade of midnight blue. The corridor ran for some thirty yards and changed directions seven times before it stopped at the door of two underground chambers. Here was Tacitus’s “cavern”, vaulted suitably in stone. The sides of the first room were fitted with stone benches and housed an “omphalos,” or navel stone, of deep blue marble, like the famous omphalos at Delphi. It signified that they had reached the oracular center of the earth.

A narrow corridor led from the first chamber to the second room, where the god kept his sacred spring. The spring survived to reward its French excavators only thirty years ago, for the water table is high at Claros, and its rise hampers access to the tunnels. The prophet, we must assume, passed into this inner chamber. Iamblichus states clearly that the prophet, not the thespode, drank the water, and on this point, too, we must follow him. He helps us make sense of their relationship. The prophet has not eaten for a whole day, and was primed by his rites and his hours of isolation. Whenever he drinks the god’s water, says Iamblichus, he “is not in control of himself and does not follow what he is saying or where he is so that he finds it hard to recover himself even after uttering his oracle. Was this inspired utterance really cast immediately in neat iambic verse? Some of the surviving oracles are metrical tours de force and they make this notion impossible. There was, after all, a thespode. First came the incoherent sounds of inspiration, induced by the solemn occasion and the expectations which surrounded the sip of Apollo’s water. Then came the second, ordered voice, the voice of the thespode, or “singer of oracles,” who put into intricate verses the basic message which Apollo had inspired. The thespode had had a day and more in which to reflect and to listen to his questioner’s news. By divine insight, Apollo’s verses neatly matched the problem in hand.

Questioners who had stayed above ground heard these sounds at a distance as they echoed through the underground corridors of stone. If they were sitting in the antechamber, they had the thrill of closer proximity. Perhaps the secretary sat with them on the benches, taking down the thespode’s version in the recently developed skill of shorthand before the words had slipped from human memory. Together again, the temple staff and their clients branched off down a second tunnel and turned seven times through a similar maze of midnight blue. Then they emerged into the sacred night, the blaze of torches and the lingering smoke of incense.

Such was the consultation which lay behind the words inscribed on the walls of the city of Oenoanda. The “questioners,” surely, were people from that city who had gone to the oracle at Claros to ask “What is the nature of God?” The prophet muttered, the thespode took up the challenge in verses of the best oracular theology which was known to his age:

Self-born, untaught, motherless, unshakeable,
Giving place to no name, many-named, dwelling in fire,
Such is God: we are a portion of God, his angels.
This, then, to the questioners of God’s nature
The god replied, calling him all-seeing Ether: to him, then look
And pray at dawn, looking out to the east.


  1. Pagans and Christians; Religion and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century A.D. when the Gods of Olympus Lost their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World by Robin Lane Fox; HarperCollins, 1986

  2. “What is clear,” one ‘fine’ theological study of visions concluded, “is that Christianity came into a world tantalized by a belief that some men at least had seen God and had found in the vision the sum of human happiness, a world aching with the hope that the same vision was attainable by all.” The opposite, in fact, was true. Pagans kept nightly company withy their gods and those who sported in dreams with Aphrodite needed no new route to heaven. Among pagans, these ‘visits’ were freely enjoyed, and there was no restraining orthodoxy, no priestly authority which restricted the plain man’s access to a nightly contact withy the gods. Art and long centuries of literature had combined with myth and the general setting of its stories to contain these visions in harmless traditional forms. The divine dreams of Artemidorus and his friends sounded no call for reform or orthodoxy and took no interest in history. They were not concerned to take men on a tour of the next world or to menace them with fears of what might happen after death. Dreams did predict people’s imminent end and its manner, but visions of the next world and its torments were most prominent in philosophical dialogues and perhaps in the theologies of small religious groups. Many people dismissed them, the absurd inventions of women and children.

  3. Among pagans, epiphanies (sightings of the gods), visions and dreams continued to spread new cults to new places, seldom with missionary vigor, but nonetheless without the interventions of priests or a religious hierarchy. The old Homeric ideal of the “close encounter” still haunted men as a possibility, while the myths and the living tradition of the Golden Age sustained the belief that the gods might one day return quite openly, if only men would lay aside their own injustices and wickedness. These beliefs had their own subtleties, without any scripture to enforce them. Among the pagans, too, “blessed are the pure in heart,” from Homer through Callimachus, to the Hermetists and Iamblichus, “for they shall see God.” A Talmis, the gods were seen in the sunlight; in the Valley of the Kings, a hero could be heard at dawn; everywhere, by night, the gods crossed the open frontier with the world of men.