July 16, 2024


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The Oracle of Dionysos in Ancient Thrace, Part 1: Literary Sources

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The Oracle of Dionysos in Ancient Thrace, Part 1: Literary Sources

In the works of some ancient writers is found information about an oracle of Dionysos in Thrace, the land of the Thracians – one of the wildest people in ancient Europe and “the most numerous people of the World, after the Indians” (according to Herodotus). The ancient sources about the oracle in question are as follows:

1. A Scholia to Euripides maintains that according to information of the “physicist Heraclides”: “That [oracle?] of Dionysus was built in Thrace on the so-called Haemus, where is said, that there were some writings of Orpheus upon tablets”. This could be the earliest evidence of oracle of Dionysos in Thrace. There is a clear location – in Mount Haemus.

2. Another scholia to Euripides, again with unknown and – in any event – later author, summarizes: “Some say, that the Oracle of Dionysus was in Pangaeus, other – in Haemus, where were some writings of Orpheus upon tablets, about which he speaks in Alcestis: “Not any drug in the Thracian tablets, where are written the sayings of Orpheus”. And because Dionysus was and prophet, in “Bacchae” he says: “This god’s a prophet, too, for in his rites the Bacchic celebrations and the madness a huge prophetic power is unleashed”. The anonymous author presents an interesting localization of the oracle – in Pangaeus or in Haemus. As in the previous scholia, the oracle’s localization is associated with some writings on tablets, whose authorship is attributed to Orpheus.

3. Traditionally, and not without reason, when it comes to the Oracle of Dionysus in Thrace in modern historiography, most attention is paid to the statement of Herodotus (ca. 484 – 424 BC), who wrote: “The Satrians however never yet became obedient to any man, so far as we know, but they remain up to my time still free, alone of all the Thracians; for they dwell in lofty mountains, which are covered with forest of all kinds and with snow, and also they are very skilful in war. These are they who possess the Oracle of Dionysos; which Oracle is on their most lofty mountains. Of the Satrians those who act as prophets of the temple are the Bessians; it is a priestess who utters the oracles, as at Delphi; and beyond this there is nothing further of a remarkable character.” It has long been state the very general nature of Herodotus’ information.

4. In an attributed to Aristotle text we read: “They say, that the rabbits, caught in Crestonia near the land of the Bisaltians, had two liver [two hearts] and had one spot sizes as one decare, in which each animal entered, dies. There is also a large and beautiful temple of Dionysus, in which was held a celebration and a sacrifice. When the god intends to make fruitful year, there appeared a great flame of fire, and it all, which are in the sacred area, see it.When the year will be barren, that light does not appeared and darkness covers the site, just as in the other nights.”

5. Another text, also attributed to Aristotle, is preserved in the Saturnalia of Macrobius, drawn at the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century AD: “What was said about the Apollo can be said and for Liber. Aristotle, who wrote “Study of the Gods”, claims that Apollo and Liber Pater are one and the same god, and many other evidence suggests that: even, he says, by the Ligyrians in Thrace was a temple, dedicated to Liber Pater, where predictions are issued, but they pronouncing their prophecies after drinking pure wine; as those on Claros drink water.”

6. Elsewhere in his text, Macrobius wrote: “Similarly, we learn that in Thrace the Sun and Liber are considered the same: they call him Sabazius and worship him in a splendid ritual, as Alexander [Polyhistor] writes, and on the hill Zilmissos they dedicate to him a round temple, with open to the sky center. The temple’s round shape points to the sun’s shape, and light is let in through the roof to show that the sun purifies all things when it shines down from on high, and because the whole world opens up when the sun rises.”

7. The later direct evidence about prediction, received in a Thracian oracle of Dionysus, is preserved by Suetonius: “Later, when Octavius was leading an army through remote parts of Thrace, and in the grove of Liber Pater consulted the priests about his son with barbarian rites, they made the same prediction [that the ruler of the world had been born]; since such a pillar of flame sprang forth from the wine that was poured over the altar, that it rose above the temple roof and mounted to the very sky, and such an omen had befallen no one save Alexander the Great, when he offered sacrifice at the same altar.”

8. Cassius Dio mentions the following: “He [M. Licinius Crassus] over ran the rest of the country [Thrace] except the territory of the Odrysae. These he spared because they are attached to the service of Dionysus, and had come to meet him on this occasion without their arms; and he also granted them the land in which they magnify the god, taking it away from the Bessi who were occupying it.”

So, this is what we can read in the ancient literature about the enigmatic oracle of Dionysos in Thrace. But is there was only one oracle? The answer is sought in the second part of this article.

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