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Dodona

by Ron Leadbetter
Dodona is situated in northwestern Greece, in the region of Epirus. This ancient sanctuary and oracle of Zeus dates back as far as the third millennium BCE when the "earth mother" was worshipped here.

Early in the second millennium BCE the worship of the "holy beech tree" sprang up (in other versions an oak tree) today the oak tree is preferred as the oak is sacred to Zeus. During the 13th and 14th centuries BCE the worship of the Pelasgian god Zeus was beginning to be established in Dodona, and the original earth goddess was renamed "Diona" and subsequently became the wife of Zeus (Dias). They both lived among the branches of the holy tree, where the seer-priests interpreted what the god spoke from the rustling of the leaves.

In the early period there were no buildings as such and according to Homer's epic poem the Iliad, (circa 750 BCE) the priests "slept on the ground, with unwashed feet". But Herodotus wrote (circa 435 BCE) that priestesses had replaced the male priests. " These priestesses called themselves doves" (peleiades), this probably comes from the legend of two priestesses from Thebes in Egypt, who were abducted by Phoenicians, to escape they turned themselves into two black doves and flew away. One landed in Libya (and established a similar sanctuary to that of Dodona). When the black dove alighted on a branch of a tree in Dodona it spoke in a human voice, demanding that an oracle be established there. (Another mythological story, this from "Jason and the Argonauts", says that Jason's ship "the Argo" had the gift of prophecy, as the prow had been carved by Athena from an oak tree which was taken from the wood beside the sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona.)

In the early fourth century BCE a small temple was built in honor and worship of Zeus, and in the third century the Epirote king Pyrrhus had put together a building program and also inaugurated a festival to be held every four years, with athletic and musical competitions, the building program included various auxiliary buildings, also a wall to protect the oracle and holy tree, around the same period the temples of Heracles and Diona were built, as well as the first theatre which had a stone floor and wooden proscenium. Although Dodona became the religious and political center of northwestern Greece it was never as influential as the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. An invasion by the Aetolians ( 219 BCE) destroyed the buildings of the Dodona oracle, but were rebuilt by the Epirotes with the help of king Philip V of Macedon. The temple of Zeus was made bigger and more splendid, as were those of Heracles and Diona, and in addition a stadium was built.

During the Roman conquest the sanctuary of Dodona was once again destroyed (167 BCE) later to be rebuilt in 31 BCE by the Emperor Augustus. The Dodona oracle was used by supplicants until early in the Christian era when the holy tree was cut down (CE 391) and the oracle ceased functioning.


Article details:

  • Pronunciation:
    doh-doh'-nuh

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