Recently I was made aware of a post by a Hellenic polytheist contesting the validity of anyone in modern times claiming to perform oracles. I hesitated to respond here, simply because I don’t want to come across as overly defensive – everyone is welcome to their opinion, and if anyone considers modern oracles to be false or unnecessary, they are under no obligation to make use of them (though for the same reason, I’m not sure why they feel the need to denounce them either). I, for one, certainly don’t expect everyone – especially those who don’t know me and have not personally experienced any usefulness from my work – to automatically accept my role as an oracle; I am simply offering a service that people can choose to partake of, because I feel it’s what I’m meant to be doing, for the gods and for Their worshippers.
However, I do want to address the overall issue of whether or not oracles are even a possibility in our current religious landscape, because I think it touches on several important points.
First of all, a note about language. The original post sought to define “oracle” but was using an English word (derived from Latin) for an ancient Greek concept, which is always problematic. She claimed that an oracle specifically denotes a physical cult center and its associated prophet (and therefore, since we do not have the capacity for organized cult centers with religious specialists on staff at this point, no oracles are possible). This is what is generally called an “institutional oracle” (defined by Sarah Iles Johnston as “situated in a fixed spot and administered by a priesthood”) but there were only about 20 such oracles in the Classical period, and far more independent manteis (seers, like the Sibyls who – contrary to assertions in the original post – were often itinerant), who could also be called “oracles” in English (as could activities like drawing lots). It’s an imprecise term to say the least, as evidenced by a quick review of the academic writing on the subject. And it seems rather arbitrary to define it rigidly and then insist that those using a different, broader definition are not doing what they claim to be doing. I don’t know of anyone doing modern oracles who is claiming they are part of a location-specific institution like the Delphic Oracle (including myself, although I draw from that tradition in certain ways).
According to the blogger, so-called modern oracles can therefore be “at best, categorized as some kind of seer or diviner” as if that’s an entirely separate category, with an implication that it is a lesser role. It is true, of course, that a lone seer’s methods and experience will be different than one with a staff of prophetai (interpreters) and priests at their service and situated in a holy spot with centuries of tradition behind them. But even those kinds of institutional oracles started small, often with a single individual prophesying (at Delphi, it was actually a goat!). We simply haven’t had the time to develop anything more elaborate. But the only way I think it would ever be successful would be a natural progression from an inspired devotee or priest/ess. In other words, to ever have the type of oracle she’s elevating above all else, we first have to have individual oracles acting alone, using the tools at their disposal (various methods of worship and altering consciousness, essentially) – the same type of oracles she’s dismissing as irrelevant or false.
(I’ll also point out that there is an assumption here that the kinds of holy spots that inherently inspire prophecy – such as Delphi or Dodona – are limited to the ancient world. There are plenty of powerful lands around the world, and perhaps some modern oracles are even being inspired by their locations and the spirits therein, even if those spots don’t have the prestige, tradition or recognition – yet – of the old ones.)
I also disagree that such “modern oracles” are entirely self-made simply because they use the term to describe themselves and don’t have an “official” designation as such from a structured community. The fact that worshippers utilize these modern oracles to communicate with their gods, that they (at least some of the time) find this interface to be useful and accurate, confers a certain amount of authenticity on its own. They are, essentially, being judged by their results, which seems fair. Those who have nothing true to offer will fade away; those who are delivering messages of value will continue to serve. That others recognize them as oracles means they are not simply self-designating. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the gods Themselves may have chosen that person to speak on Their behalf, and who are we to dispute that, so long as the work is not being done to self-aggrandize or profit unduly (that doesn’t mean we have to each accept and utilize any specific oracular services, just that we should be cautious about dismissing their validity outright).
The blogger goes on to state “I am not convinced that we even need a re-establishment of oracles to be honest as many worshipers are interested enough to methods of divination to do for themselves.” This is a baffling statement to me because it is so clearly incomplete. Of course, many modern pagans employ some kind of divination system. But (1) some are unable to do this themselves, or simply uninterested, preferring to study other things; (2) those who do divination casually may not feel qualified to get answers to their most important or complex questions; and (3) even expert diviners and fellow oracles will, if smart, want to occasionally consult with others to get an objective view of a situation. To me, that’s like saying that we don’t need doctors because many pagans are familiar with herbal medicine and home remedies. There is always a place for a specialist (and let’s remember, in ancient Greece, land of the institutional oracles, there were countless methods of basic divination readily available to the average person, and yet still they sought out oracles). I can state from experience that any serious oracular practitioner has devoted countless hours and strenuous work to honing their techniques, on a level which simply isn’t practical for the average devotee who isn’t called to that vocation. Plus, the fact that all of the modern oracles I am aware of are never lacking in querents means that modern pagans do need them.
I encourage anyone struggling to receive a clear message from the gods (whether you’re a newbie pagan or an experienced trance specialist) to utilize one of the many modern oracles to be found in a variety of traditions – seidhkona and spakona, sibyls and manteis, deity horses, experts in mechanical divination methods like runes and ogham (which are themselves just tools to access and interpret a deeper state of receptive consciousness for those truly proficient), and anyone else offering these services. Check them out, pay attention to your instincts, and keep an open but discerning mind. Some are surely frauds or self-delusional, some are less connected or simply less experienced than others, but you may find at least one that is helpful to you.