Epirus is one of the regions into which the Republic of Greece is divided: it is located in the north-western part of the country: historical Epirus included part of southern Albania and other minor territories which now belong to other Greek regions. It borders on the Ionian Sea, but it has an almost alpine landscape: ridges of mountains which run parallel to the coast have always limited the access to and from Epirus. Its population amounted to around 350,000 in 2001 in a territory of 3,500 square miles, a very low ratio by European standards.
View of the mountains to the west of Dodoni
Even today forests and woods cover most of Epirus: in ancient times the few inhabitants who lived along the rivers and around the lakes were entirely surrounded by forests, which, although not comparable to a tropical jungle, nonetheless were not places to go jogging. Wild beasts typical of the alpine environment, such as bears and wolves, but probably also lions and other species of the cat family, lived in the forests.
Mountains and forests kept the most ancient inhabitants of Epirus in a state of isolation
and their contacts with the Greek civilization which developed on the shores and the
islands of the Aegean Sea were limited.
Their religious beliefs were very much influenced by the environment which surrounded them: the major deity was a goddess-earth and she and the other deities were thought to live in the woods.
According to Pliny the Elder (Historia naturalis: Book XII):
Haec fuere numinum templa, priscoque ritu simplicia rura etiam nunc deo praecellentem arborem dicant; nec magis auro fulgentia atque ebore simulacra quam lucos et in iis silentia ipsa adoramus; arborum genera numinibus suis dicata perpetuo servantur, ut Iovi aesculus, Apollini laurus, Minervae olea, Veneri myrtus, Herculi populus; quin et Silvanos Faunosque et dearum genera silvis ac sua numina tamquam e caelo attributa credimus.
"The trees formed the first temples of the gods, and even at the present day, the country people, preserving in all their simplicity their ancient rites, consecrate the finest among their trees to some divinity; indeed, we feel ourselves inspired to adoration, not less by the sacred groves and their very stillness, than by the statues of the gods, resplendent as they are with gold and ivory. Each kind of tree remains immutably consecrated to its own peculiar divinity, the beech to Jupiter, the laurel to Apollo, the olive to Minerva, the myrtle to Venus, and the poplar to Hercules: besides which, it is our belief that the Sylvans, the Fauns, and various kinds of goddess Nymphs, have the tutelage of the woods, and we look upon those deities as especially appointed to preside over them by the will of heaven" (translation by John Bostock and H.T. Riley).
Trees and in general the vegetal world were also the location of afterlife; so Adonis was turned into an anemone, Daphne into a laurel and Narcissus into the flower by the same name.
When the inhabitants of Epirus had closer relationships with the Greek world, they adapted their beliefs to the patriarchal and more elaborated mythology of the latter.
An oak which stood alone at the centre of a clearing and which was regarded as sacred, retained its holiness by becoming the residence of Zeus. This because "two black doves flew from Egyptian Thebes: one to Libyan Ammon, the other to Dodoni (the site of the sacred oak in Epirus). Each alighted on an oak-tree, which they proclaimed to be an oracle of Zeus. At Dodoni, Zeus' priestesses listened to the cooing of doves, or to the rustling of oak-leaves (and based on them their oracles)."(Robert Graves - The Greek Myths).
The site of the stadium
The Oracle of Dodoni was the eldest oracle, but not the most important: it was too far away from the centre of Greece; in a way we can call it a regional oracle. We should not look down on those who thought their fate was disclosed by what the leaves said; we should consider that not everybody believed in the oracle; the percentage of those who actually did so was probably not different from that of those who in our time read horoscopes, play solitaire or tarot cards as a way to know the likeliness of future events, or attach importance to superstitions as to what brings good or bad luck.
Outer walls supporting the steps of the theatre
In the most ancient times there were no temples at the Oracle of Dodoni; when eventually a temple was dedicated to Zeus it was just a low wall marking a precinct around the sacred oak; the god was not in the cell of the temple but inside the roots of the tree, the cell being only a repository for the offerings made to the god; it is generally thought that columns were initially meant to represent trees; the first statues of the gods were carved from trunks as if to bring to light the god who was inside them.
Steps of the stadium and part of the southern walls of the theatre
The importance of the Oracle of Dodoni was revived by the Kings of Epirus: mainly by Pyrrhus (306-272) and by Philip V (221-179 BC). Pyrrhus raised the importance of a local festival, the Naia, with the objective of turning it into an alternative to the Olympic Games. This explains why a theatre and a stadium, both of a large dimension, were built at Dodoni which was not a town, but just the residence of the priests and their assistants.
Details of the theatre
The ambitions of the kings of Epirus came to an end when their expansion plans brought them in contact with Rome. Epirus was eventually conquered by the Romans in 168 BC and in 167 Dodoni suffered great damage. It was not however the end of the Oracle of Zeus which continued to be consulted: the theatre and the stadium were restored: during the rule of Emperor Augustus the theatre was modified so that combats with wild beasts and gladiatorial contests could take place; the stage was enlarged and a sewage system was dug to clean the stage after the fights; a wall was built in the lower tier to protect the spectators.
The site of an early Christian basilica
In 392 AD Emperor Theodosius declared the Christian faith
the sole religion of the Roman Empire: to consult the Oracle of Zeus was
forbidden; a church was built above some of the temples. Dodoni, deprived of its oracle and of
the festival was abandoned after the raid of a barbarian tribe in the VIth century.
Dodoni is located a few miles south of Ioanina, a town with interesting Ottoman monuments.
The monuments of Dodoni are very interesting and the theatre is very well preserved; however the charm of the location lies in the landscape which surrounds the archaeological site: one feels that the trees are spying on what goes on. Maybe they are waiting for the right occasion to advance similarly to Birnam Wood to re-establish their supremacy on Dodoni and to cancel all traces of man's ephemeral passage on Earth.
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Asklepion of Kos
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina