An oracle is a person or thing considered to provide wise and insightful counsel or prophetic predictions, most notably including precognition of the future, inspired by deities. If done through occultic means, it is a form of divination.
The Oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwa Oasis was so famous that Alexander the Great visited it when he conquered Egypt to ask if he was the son of Zeus.
Oracles in Antiquity
The word oracle comes from the Latin verb ōrāre, "to speak" and properly refers to the priest or priestess uttering the prediction. In extended use, oracle may also refer to the site of the oracle, and to the oracular utterances themselves, called khrēsmē "tresme" (χρησμοί) in Greek.
Oracles were thought to be portals through which the gods spoke directly to people. In this sense, they were different from seers (manteis, μάντεις) who interpreted signs sent by the gods through bird signs, animal entrails, and other various methods.
The most important oracles of Greek antiquity were Pythia (priestess to Apollo at Delphi), and the oracle of Dione and Zeus at Dodona in Epirus. Other oracles of Apollo were located at Didyma and Mallus on the coast of Anatolia, at Corinth and Bassae in the Peloponnese, and at the islands of Delos and Aegina in the Aegean Sea.
The Sibylline Oracles are a collection of oracular utterances written in Greek hexameters, ascribed to the Sibyls, prophetesses who uttered divine revelations in frenzied states.
Walter Burkert observes that "Frenzied women from whose lips the God speaks" are recorded in the Near East as in Mari in the second millennium BC and in Assyria in the first millennium BC. In Egypt, the goddess Wadjet (eye of the moon) was depicted as a snake-headed woman or a woman with two snake-heads. Her oracle was in the renowned temple in Per-Wadjet (Greek name Buto). The oracle of Wadjet may have been the source for the oracular tradition which spread from Egypt to Greece. Evans linked Wadjet with the "Minoan Snake Goddess."
At the oracle of Dodona she is called Diōnē (the feminine form of Diós, genitive of Zeus; or of dīos, "godly", literally "heavenly"), who represents the earth-fertile soil, probably the chief female goddess of the proto-Indo-European pantheon. Python, daughter (or son) of Gaia was the earth dragon of Delphi represented as a serpent and became the chthonic deity, enemy of Apollo, who slew her and possessed the oracle.
Oracles in global cultures
The term "oracle" is also applied in modern English to parallel institutions of divination in other cultures. Specifically, it is used in the context of Christianity for the concept of divine revelation, and in the context of Judaism for the Urim and Thummim breastplate, and in general any utterance considered prophetic.
In Celtic polytheism, divination was performed by the priestly caste, either the druids or the vates. This is reflected in the role of "seers" in Dark Age Wales (dryw) and Ireland (fáith).
In China, oracle bones were used for divination in the late Shang dynasty, (c. 1600–1046 BC). Diviners applied heat to these bones, usually ox scapulae or tortoise plastrons, and interpreted the resulting cracks.
A different divining method, using the stalks of the yarrow plant, was practiced in the subsequent Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). Around the late 9th century BC, the divination system was recorded in the I Ching, or "Book of Changes," a collection of linear signs used as oracles. In addition to its oracular power, the I Ching has had a major influence on the philosophy, literature and statecraft of China since the Zhou period.
In Hawaii, oracles were found at certain heiau, Hawaiian temples. These oracles were found in towers covered in white kapa cloth made from plant fibers. In here, priests received the will of gods. These towers were called 'Anu'u. An example of this can be found at Ahu'ena heiau in Kona.
India and Nepal
In ancient India, the oracle was known as ākāśavānī "voice/speech from the sky/aether" or aśarīravānī "a disembodied voice (or voice of the unseen)" (asariri in Tamil), and was related to the message of a god. Oracles played key roles in many of the major incidents of the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. An example is that Kamsa (or Kansa), the evil uncle of Krishna, was informed by an oracle that the eighth son of his sister Devaki would kill him. The opening verse of the Tiruvalluva Maalai, a medieval Tamil anthology usually dated by modern scholars to between c. 7th and 10th centuries CE, is attributed to an asariri or oracle. However, there are no references in any Indian literature of the oracle being a specific person.
Contemporarily, Theyyam or "theiyam" in Malayalam - a south Indian language - the process by which a devotee invites a Hindu god or goddess to use his or her body as a medium or channel and answer other devotees' questions, still happens.
The Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria in Africa have a long tradition of using oracles. In Igbo villages, oracles were usually female priestesses to a particular deity, usually dwelling in a cave or other secluded location away from urban areas, and, much as the oracles of ancient Greece, would deliver prophecies in an ecstatic state to visitors seeking advice. Two of their ancient oracles became especially famous during the pre-colonial period: the Agbala oracle at Awka and the Chukwu oracle at Arochukwu. Although the vast majority of Igbos today are Christian, many of them still use oracles.
Among the related Yoruba peoples of the same country, the Babalawos (and their female counterparts, the Iyanifas) serve collectively as the principal aspects of the tribe's world-famous Ifa divination system. Due to this, they customarily officiate at a great many of its traditional and religious ceremonies.
In Norse mythology, Odin took the severed head of the god Mimir to Asgard for consultation as an oracle. The Havamal and other sources relate the sacrifice of Odin for the oracular runes whereby he lost an eye (external sight) and won wisdom (internal sight; insight).
In the migration myth of the Mexitin, i.e., the early Aztecs, a mummy-bundle carried by four priests directed the trek away from the cave of origins by giving oracles. An oracle led to the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The Yucatec Mayas knew oracle priests or chilanes, literally 'mouthpieces' of the deity. Their written repositories of traditional knowledge, the Books of Chilam Balam, were all ascribed to one famous oracle priest who had correctly predicted the coming of the Spaniards and its associated disasters.
In Tibet, oracles (Chinese: 护法) have played, and continue to play, an important part in religion and government. The word "oracle" is used by Tibetans to refer to the spirit that enters those men and women who act as media between the natural and the spiritual realms. The media are, therefore, known as kuten, which literally means, "the physical basis". In the 29-Article Ordinance for the More Effective Governing of Tibet (Chinese: 欽定藏內善後章程二十九條), an imperial decree published in 1793 by the Qianlong Emperor, article 1 states that the creation of Golden Urn is to ensure prosperity of Gelug, and to eliminate cheating and corruption in the selection process performed by oracles.
The Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in northern India, still consults an oracle known as the Nechung Oracle, which is considered the official state oracle of the government of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has, according to centuries-old custom, consulted the Nechung Oracle during the new year festivities of Losar. Nechung and Gadhong are the primary oracles currently consulted; former oracles such as Karmashar and Darpoling are no longer active in exile. The Gadhong oracle has died leaving Nechung to be the only primary oracle.
Another oracle the Dalai Lama consults is the Tenma Oracle, for which a young Tibetan woman by the name of Khandro La is the medium for the mountain goddesses Tseringma along with the other 11 goddesses. The Dalai Lama gives a complete description of the process of trance and spirit possession in his book Freedom in Exile. Dorje Shugden oracles were once consulted by the Dalai Lamas until the 14th Dalai Lama banned the practice, even though he consulted Dorje Shugden for advice to escape and was successful in it. Due to the ban, many of the abbots that were worshippers of Dorje Shugden have been forced to go against the Dalai Lama.
In the modern era, most oracles are not people, but tools used for the purpose of divination. Oracle cards are one of the most popular and commonly-found versions of such tools.