The desire to penetrate the dark veil of futurity, and thereby to avert, if possible, threatened danger, has animated mankind in all ages of the world. Prophetic knowledge was sought by the Greeks at the mouth of oracles, whose predictions were interpreted to the people by priests, specially appointed for the purpose.
The most famous of these institutions was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was held in general repute all over the world. People flocked from far and near to consult this wonderful mouth-piece of the gods, one month in the year being specially set apart for the purpose.
The priestess who delivered the oracles was called the Pythia, after the serpent Python, which was killed by Apollo. Having first bathed in the waters of the Castalian spring, she was conducted into the temple by the priests, and was seated on a sort of three-legged stool or table, called a tripod, which was placed over the mouth of a cave whence issued sulphurous vapours. Here she gradually became affected in a remarkable manner, and fell into an ecstatic condition, in which she uttered wild and extraordinary phrases, which were held to be the utterance of Apollo himself; these the priests interpreted to the people, but in most cases in so ambiguous a manner that the fulfilment of the prediction could not easily be disputed. During the ceremony, clouds of incense filled the temple, and hid the priestess from the view of the uninitiated, and at its conclusion she was reconducted, in a fainting condition, to her cell.
The following is a striking instance of the ambiguity of oracular predictions:--Croesus, the rich king of Lydia, before going to war with Cyrus, king of Persia, consulted an oracle as to the probable success of the expedition. The reply he received was, that if he crossed a certain river he would destroy a great empire. Interpreting the response as being favourable to his design, Croesus crossed the river, and encountered the Persian king, by whom he was entirely defeated; and his own empire being destroyed, the prediction of the oracle was said to have been fulfilled.