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".
Pliny the Elder - Historia naturalis - Book XII - 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.
The principal towns of the Molossians were Possaro and
Dodona, where was the celebrated oracle of Jupiter. The eastern part of Epirus was the
first which became known to the Greeks, since it was by that side that they penetrated into the country. According to their account, the most ancient inhabitants
of the country were Deucalion and Pyrrha, who took refuge here in flying from
the deluge that bears their name. (..) On entering the country of Sagori, which begins at a village four leagues from
Janina, the forests of Dodona are to be seen to the right.
F. C. H. L. Pouqueville - Travels in the Morea, Albania, and other parts of the Ottoman empire - 1817
I have already suggested the probability that the valley of Ioannina is the Dodonaea. (..) Unfortunately, nothing more than an opinion can be advanced on this subject, as Dodona has neither been described by any ancient author, so as to be recognized by such description, nor have any remains or monuments been yet discovered tending to supply the deficiency. Hence Dodona is now the only Greek city of great celebrity, the situation of which is not exactly known by means of a comparison of ancient history with actual appearances.
William Martin Leake - Travels in northern Greece - 1835
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 it. Its population amounted to ca 350,000 in 2001 in a territory of 3,500 square miles, a very low ratio by European standards.
Here the imagination is immediately carried back to those visionary ages when superstition animated every tree in this forest, and
feeble-minded credulous men believed that in consulting them the impenetrable
veil of futurity would be drawn aside, and the fate that was to attend their subsequent lives spread clearly before their eyes. Here were the famous oracular oaks which were consulted by people from a very great
distance. The deception consisted in a number of brazen vessels being hung to
the trees, from which, when they were moved by the wind, came sounds that
passed for oracles. Pouqueville
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. Wild beasts such as bears, boars and wolves, but probably also lions and other species of the cat family, lived in the forests.
The religious beliefs of the first inhabitants 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.
No mention is made of any relics of antiquity still subsisting in the country. (..) Nothing then remains but the recollection of events, and the remembrance of past times, to those who may come to meditate
in this corner of the world: for this reason, probably, it is one to which no traveller has directed his steps for many ages. Pouqueville
Of the Dodonaean temple in particular it is difficult to believe that some vestiges should not still subsist, or that some remains of the numerous dedications which had accumulated within its walls during the long ages of its sacred celebrity, should not be yet preserved below the surface of the soil, if we knew exactly where to explore, or, having that knowledge, could search in security. Leake
The site of the ancient town was identified in 1873, 22 km south of Ioanina. Systematic restoration work in the theatre, the stadium, and other monuments of the site started in 1961.
When the inhabitants of Epirus had closer relationships with the Greek world, they adapted their beliefs to the more complex 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. 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
There were priests and priestesses attached to the temple of
Jupiter, and the oracle was exceedingly frequented in ancient times; but after the
establishment of the temple at Delphos, this at Dodona sunk in reputation. Pouqueville
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.
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. Some early rock-cut tombs in Lycia were decorated in such a way to resemble buildings of wood.
Steps of the stadium and part of the southern walls of the theatre
The importance of the Oracle of Dodoni was revived by Pyrrhus, King of Epirus and by Philip V King of Macedonia. 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 size, were built at Dodoni which was not a town, but just the residence of the priests and their assistants.
Details of the theatre
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.
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 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 Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina