Although Delphi became the most famous oracle of the Ancient World, capturing the imagination of millions over the millennia, the origins of cult lie further north. Today, the crumbling ruins of Dodoni, located in Greece’s beautiful Epirus region, bear witness to these mythical early days of prophecy.
During times of internal strife and doubt, ancient Greeks would brave the arduous journey to the steep and rugged slopes of Mount Parnassus in the historical region of Phocis. At Delphi, the navel of the world (according to Greek mythology), they sought to find answers to their woes and to calm their qualms by posing their questions to Pythia, the high priestess of Apollo. So great was her reputation that people pilgrimaged from all corners of the classical world to hear her words and ponder her cryptical prophecies.
Although Delphi basked in the limelight, the roots of divination reached much deeper though.
Long before the coming of Zeus and the emergence of pantheon in the Greek conscience, the ancient people, inhabiting the forested valleys of Pindos, started to venerate Gaia, also known as Mother Earth, or the Great Goddess. Associated with fertility, prophecy, and tree-worship, excavations have confirmed that the oldest known oracle shrine began to operate in Dodoni; nearly 5000 years ago.
Entrance Fee | General admission: 4€ | Students (under 26): free
Free admission | 6 March | 18 April | 18 May | last weekend of September | National Holidays (when open)
Opening Hours | Winter 8:30-15:30 | Summer 8:00-20:00 | open every day
Closed | 1 January | 25 March | 1 May | Easter Sunday | 25 December | 26 December
When the Thesprotoi tribe migrated to Epirus in the 2nd millennium BCE, introducing the worship of Zeus, new and old merged. Gaia became Dione, deriving from dias (=Zeus), in turn transferring her qualities, among them divination, to her new husband (a very lobsided deal if you ask me). Henceforth, the divine couple dwelled beneath the sacred oak tree, worshiped by the pious settlers of these verdant lands.
“…two black doves took off from Thebes in Egypt, one of which flew to Libya, while the other came to them in Dodoni. It perched on an oak tree and spoke in a human voice, telling the people of Dodoni that there ought to be an oracle of Zeus there”
Herodotus, The Histories, II.55
Those connected to the gods, the sacred diviners, were known as selli or helli. By studying the rustling of leaves, the flight of the doves nesting in the branches, and the crackling sound of the bronze cauldrons surrounding the holy site, they interpreted the will of the gods and conveyed it to the remaining mortals. By not washing their feet and sleeping on the ground, they stayed connected with Gaia and the age-old roots of their pagan religion. Offerings were either hung on branches or placed around the oak, while questions were engraved on thin lead sheets brought forth by individuals, groups, or even entire towns.
Throughout the following centuries, the sanctuary witnessed substantial growth, attributed to its spiritual importance and political role within the Epirote ethne (a state formation distinct to the city-states of southern Greece). Numerous temples and shrines, dedicated to other deities of the Greek pantheon, as well as secular buildings such as a theatre and stadium were constructed, augmenting Dodoni’s fame and prestige within the Greek world.
Although the site was razed multiple times throughout its turbulent history, it was yet another religion heralding the end of this sacred sanctuary. As Christianity became the dominant faith in the Roman Empire, replacing the beliefs of old, Dodoni ceased to function in the 4th century CE and was completely abandoned two centuries later.
Today, little remains of the former oracle. Besides the theatre (currently under reconstruction), and a couple of crumbling walls and foundations, Dodoni has been lost to the centuries. Nevertheless, visiting the site is worthwhile. The archaeological park lies in a verdant valley, surrounded by Mount Tomarus and the Monoliassa mountain range, providing a beautiful setting (especially in fall) to this former religious site. Even though the ruin count is negligible, the idyllic surroundings create a harmonious and tranquil atmosphere, ideally suited for a half-day trip from Ioannina.
BEFORE YOU GO
| Don’t forget your student ID to be eligible for the discount (only 25 and under).
| Buses from Ioannina run ever Friday (June 2022).
| The archaeological site is quite small, however, bring a book and you might spend a fair amount of time relaxing in the shade of the sacred oak tree.
| Several artifacts have been unearthed and are being displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Ioannina. Definitely worth a visit if you want to deepen your knowledge about Dodoni and the wider Epirus region in general.
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