The oracle at Dodona was the oldest in Greece, with only Delphi rivaling it in prestige. There was a main temple, probably dedicated to Zeus and Dione, with several smaller temples around the site. (At least one, near the theatre, had dedications to Aphrodite, Dione’s daughter by Zeus, according to local myth.)
While Dodona is often described as Zeus’ oracle, Dione was honoured alongside him: questions for the oracle were addressed to both of them and as Zeus Naios and Dione Naia they appeared on coins together. (Roberts, Piccinini) Or separately: there are coins showing Dione alone.
We know that there was a lavish and expensive statue of Dione, because Hypereides mentioned it in his speech defending Euxenippos, describing how it was commissioned, with a beautiful face and costly clothing, and honoured with a procession and sacrifices. (Pro Euxenippos 26) Apparently this was in obedience to a command from the oracle itself, seen as Zeus’ own order.
The Doves and the Oak
Part of Dodona’s mystique may have been its remoteness – in the north-west of Greece, with the mountain of Tomaros dominating the setting. The priests and priestesses used several different methods of divination, interpreting the rustling of oak leaves, thunder, the sound of water, the flight of doves that lived in the trees there, or the ringing of the bronze cauldrons surrounding the sacred oak tree. (The ringing of the cauldrons gave rise to the expression “Dodonian chatterbox”.)
Most of these methods are what you might expect from a shrine to a thunder-god, including the tree-shrine and the mountain backdrop. However, the doves introduce a feminine note, and some stories of the oracle’s origin credit a dove with pointing the way to its site.
In the beginning the oracle was tended by priests called Selloi, who went barefoot and slept on the ground to honour their connection to the site and the earth. Their name came from the rustling of the oak leaves. Later, as Strabo says, priestesses called Peliades or Doves also tended the site:
At the outset, it is true, those who uttered the prophecies were men (this too perhaps the poet indicates, for he calls them hypophetai, and the prophets might be ranked among these), but later on three old women were designated as prophets, after Dione also had been designated as temple-associate of Zeus.
(Strabo, Geography 7.7.9)
Herodotus, in his Histories, tells a more colourful story:
That, then, I heard from the Theban priests; and what follows, the prophetesses of Dodona say: that two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true.
(Herodotus, The Histories 2.55)
Strabo dismisses this as invention (“more appropriate to poetry”) and says that the people of Epirus called old women pelai, so the priestesses were also called pelai, doves. The change from priests to priestesses probably reflects political changes when different tribes of Epirus controlled the oracle: the Thesprotians in the fourth century, followed by the Molossians. (Eidinow: 64)
Under Pyrrhus, in the second century BCE, Dodona was the religious capital of Epirus. Long before then, Dodona had its own games and theatre, with plays regularly performed there as part of its annual festival, dedicated to Zeus Naios and Dione Naia. (The name refers to the spring at the shrine, whose gurgling could also be used as an oracle.)
Protector of the Young
A bronze statue from Dodona shows a priestess with a dove perched on her hand. (Thompson: 156) Other figures from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE show priestesses or the goddess herself with a dove, and one image of a small boy, in bronze, shows him holding a dove. (Other Greek art also shows children with doves, perhaps pets.)
Thompson thinks his hairstyle indicates that he was dedicated to Dione, either to sacrifice a lock of his hair to her or to serve at the temple during his childhood. Children were often dedicated in such a way to the deities who were known to watch over children: Asklepios, Demeter, Artemis and Aphrodite. Dione, Aphrodite’s mother, must have been another such deity. At a time when many children never reached adulthood, such dedications would have been a form of divine insurance.
Dione appears in the Iliad comforting her own wounded daughter, and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo lists her among the goddesses who came to Leto during her labour pains:
But Leto was racked nine days and nine nights with pangs beyond wont. And there were with her all the chiefest of the goddesses, Dione and Rhea and Ichnaea and Themis and loud-moaning Amphitrite and the other deathless goddesses save white-armed Hera, who sat in the halls of cloud-gathering Zeus.
(Hm Hymn Ap: 94ff)
Archaeologists have found thousands of lead tablets inscribed with the visitors’ questions. The attendants returned these, with their answers, to the visitors. (Heras: 27) So many of them have been found at the site that scholars have wondered if the visitors were not allowed to take them away, or if they were meant simply as a record. Among the questions addressed to the oracle were queries from anxious parents or parents-to-be about the health of their children.