An oracle is a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinion; an infallible authority, usually spiritual in nature. It can also be a prediction of the future, from the gods, that is spoken through another object or life-form. In the ancient world many sites gained a reputation for the dispensing of oracular wisdom: they too became known as "oracles", as did the oracular utterances themselves, whose very name is derived from the Latin verb orare, to speak.
In classical Greece, the pre-eminent oracle—the Sibyl (or Pythia)—operated at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This oracle exerted considerable influence throughout Hellenic culture; the Greeks consulted her prior to all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, and so forth. The semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria and even Egypt also respected her. Croesus of Lydia consulted Delphi before attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus was told, "If you do, you will destroy a great empire." Believing the response favorable, Croesus attacked, but it was his own empire that was ultimately destroyed by the Persians.
The oracle also allegedly proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in Greece, to which Socrates said that if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. In the 3rd century, the oracle (perhaps bribed) declared that the god would no longer speak there.
Another oracle of note lay in Egypt, in a temple dedicated to Ammon, whom the Greeks associated with Zeus. Alexander the Great once visited it, and though no record of his query remains, the oracle is thought to have hailed him as Ammon's son, influencing his conceptions of his own divinity.
- Curnow, T. 1995. The Oracles of the Ancient World: A Comprehensive Guide. London: Duckworth — ISBN 0715631942
- Fontenrose, J. 1981. The Delphic Oracle. Its responses and operations with a catalogue of responses. Berkeley: University of California Press