The shrine of Dodona was the oldest Hellenic oracle, according to the fifth-century historian Herodotus and in fact dates to pre-Hellenic times, perhaps as early as the second millennium BCE. Aristotle considered the region to have been part of Hellas and the region where the Hellenes originated. Priestesses and priests in the sacred grove interpreted the rustling of the oak (or beech) leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken. Greek oracles are often misconstrued as having predicted the future. The oracle was first under control of Thesprotians before it passed into the hands of Molossians.
Though the earliest inscriptions at the site date to ca. 550–500 BCE, archaeological excavations over more than a century have recovered artifacts as early as the Mycenaean era, many now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, and some in the archaeological museum at nearby Ioannina.
At Dodona, Zeus was worshipped as "Zeus Naios" or "Naos" (god of the spring cf. Naiads)— there was a spring below the oak in the temenos or sanctuary— and "Zeus Bouleus" (Counsellor). Originally an oracle of the Mother Goddess, the oracle was shared by Dione (whose name, like "Zeus," simply means "deity") and Zeus. Many dedicatory inscriptions recovered from the site mention both "Dione" and "Zeus Naios". Elsewhere in Classical Greece, Dione was relegated to a minor role by Classical times, being made into an aspect of Zeus's more usual consort, Hera, but never at Dodona.
The god could also be invoked from a distance. In Homer's Iliad 16.233-5 (circa 750 BCE), Achilles prays to "High Zeus, Lord of Dodona, Pelasgian, living afar off, brooding over wintry Dodona" No buildings are mentioned, and the priests (called Selloi) slept on the ground with unwashed feet. The oracle also features in Odysseus' fictive yarn about himself told to the swineherd Eumaeus (Odyssey 14.327-8): Odysseus, he tells Eumaeus, has 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); later (Odyssey 19. he repeats the same tale to Penelope, who may not yet have seen through his disguise. His words "bespeak a familiarity with Dodona, a realization of its importance,and an understanding that it was normal to consult Zeus there on a problem of personal conduct."
Not until the fourth century BCE, was a small stone temple to Zeus added to the site. By the time Euripides mentioned Dodona (fragmentary play Melanippe), and Herodotus wrote about the oracle, priestesses had been restored. Though it never eclipsed the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, Dodona gained a reputation far beyond Greece. In Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, a retelling of an older story of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason's ship, the "Argo", had the gift of prophecy, because it contained an oak timber spirited from Dodona.
of Pyrrhus in Dodona.]]
In the third century BCE, King Pyrrhus grandly rebuilt the Temple of Zeus, and added many other buildings and a festival featuring athletic games, musical contests, and drama enacted in a theatre. A wall was built around the oracle itself and the holy tree, as well as temples to Heracles and Dione.
In 219 BCE, the Aetolians invaded and burned the temple to the ground. Though King Philip V of Macedon rebuilt all the buildings bigger and better than before, and added a stadium for annual games, the oracle at Dodona never fully recovered. In 167 BCE, Dodona was once again destroyed and later rebuilt 31 BCE by Emperor Augustus. By the time the traveller Pausanias visited Dodona in the second century AD, the sacred grove had been reduced to a single oak. Pilgrims still consulted the oracle until CE 391, when Christians cut down the holy tree. Though the surviving town was insignificant, the long-hallowed pagan site must have retained significance, for a Christian Bishop of Dodona attended the First Council of Ephesus in CE 431.
Herodotus (Histories 2:54–57) 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." The simplest analysis: Egypt, for Greeks and for Egyptians themselves was a spring of human culture of all but immeasurable antiquity. This mythic element says that the oracles at the oasis of Siwa in Libya and of Dodona in Epirus were equally old, but similarly transmitted by Phoenician culture, and that the seeresses — Herodotus does not say "sibyls" — were women.
Herodotus follows with what he was told by the prophetesses, called peleiades ("doves") at Dodona:
that 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. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. 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.
In the simplest analysis, this was a confirmation of the oracle tradition in Egypt. The element of the dove may be an attempt to account for a folk etymology applied to the archaic name of the sacred women that no longer made sense. Was the pel- element in their name actually connected with "black" or "muddy" root elements in names like "Peleus" or "Pelops"? Is that why the doves were black? Herodotus adds:
But my own belief about it is this. If the Phoenicians did in fact carry away the sacred women and sell one in Libya and one in Hellas, then, in my opinion, the place where this woman was sold in what is now Hellas, but was formerly called Pelasgia, was Thesprotia; and then, being a slave there, she established a shrine of Zeus under an oak that was growing there; for it was reasonable that, as she had been a handmaid of the temple of Zeus at Thebes, she would remember that temple in the land to which she had come. After this, as soon as she understood the Greek language, she taught divination; and she said that her sister had been sold in Libya by the same Phoenicians who sold her.
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.
Thesprotia, on the coast west of Dodona, would have been available to the sea-going Phoenicians, whom Herodotus' readers would not have expected to have penetrated as far inland as Dodona. Christians will be particularly arrested by the doves as vehicles of divine spirit [Why? The Greeks held all birds to be sacred in some manner or other.].
- Easterling, P.E. and Muir, John Victor. Greek Religion and Society. Cambridge University Press, 1985. ISBN 0521287855
- Anastasios-Phoivos Christidēs, Maria Arapopoulou, and Maria Chritē. A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 0521833078
- Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia Of Ancient Greece. Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2005. ISBN 9780415973342
- Marinatos, Nanno and Hägg, Robin. Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0415053846
- The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs' capsule history of the oracle and theatre of Dodona.
- Hellenic Ministry of Culture's page on Dodona
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898), s.v. "Dodona"
- Dodona: Pathways to the Ancient World by Joe Stubenrauch
- C. E. Witcombe, "Sacred Places: Trees and the sacred"
- A.E. Housman, The Oracles