Modern Oracles

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.

~ by Dver on April 4, 2012.

13 Responses to “Modern Oracles”

  1. It strikes me as one of the standard Stupid Reconstructionist Conversations: since the procedures of the Mysteries of whatever sort are not recoverable via archaeological means in most cases, can mystical practice be “reconstruction”? It always strikes me as a fundamentally wrong question, but people keep asking it.

    Some people approach anything of the sort – mystery work, oracular studies, whatever else – as fundamentally illegitimate, because it cannot be the same as documented ancient practices. And if you’re a tendentious lorehead, well, if it’s not In The Record, it’s not good enough to be reconstruction.

    I tend more towards the school of “I’ll work with the lore, and if the gods want us to have Mysteries, They’ll guide us to them.” Which means that people working out the particulars of oracular practice are doing basically what I expect will happen over time … especially since the gods clearly wanted us to have oracles in ancient days. Why fuck with what works?

    • I tend more towards the school of “I’ll work with the lore, and if the gods want us to have Mysteries, They’ll guide us to them.”

      I agree, and as a mystic, I am open to receiving such Mysteries at least on a personal level, possibly more than that. The problem I see a lot is that people take your stance, but then refuse to recognize when those Mysteries are actually being revealed. Like, people have mystical experiences and build on them, and others trash it and say that the gods will give us Mysteries if They want us to have them – well how do they think that happens? Exactly the way it is happening, little by little, via a bunch of individual and communal mystical experiences.

      • Whereas I’m more in the perspective of, “The gods will guide us to the Mysteries if they want us t–… fuck. Now I need to figure out how to make this work. FUCK.” At least these days.

        Being a tendentious lorehead was less work.😛

        • It’s true, it’s much easier, and safer, to stay in the box of strict Reconstructionism, just like the ancients did it. When you start engaging intimately with the gods and the spiritworld, it’s a lot more demanding!

  2. I read the original original post and it has left me somewhat confused. First he tells us it is highly unlikely that there ever will be true oracles. And than he goes on by telling us that he has no need of them. Why does he that he (and effectively we) does not need them, if there not in existence? His real message is thus that there must be many ‘false’ oracles out there. Yet if oracles are not ‘selfmade’ as he claims, how is he able to claim which oracle is true and which is false or incompetent? Are there that many self-prophessed oracles out there that he has found wanting?

    I find the whole article wanting.
    And speaking from experience … I am a big insecure sceptic, and I have found immense value in your oracle-work. Not everyone has confidence in their own receptive powers. If the author is really so wary of oracular powers, is it than not a good thing when people go to a third party for confirmation? Surely seeking support with each other in this fashion will help to create that community which he says is sorely missing?

  3. I agree with the post’s author in that I don’t think saying one is an oracle automatically makes one so however if people are coming to you and others for oracles (and find them just as useful as we can imagine folks back then did) then, I think, that alone lends credence to your work. Whether or not we need oracles is not for any one person or group of people to judge and I don’t think any such judgement should be based merely on intellectual grounds: if an oracle is indeed so then it will prove its usefulness and efficiency and deliver. I don’t know if this method is too practical but it does seem to get to the heart of the matter.

    On another note, I don’t think folks should restrict themselves to divinations only done by themselves or by others on their behalf. Even if one is as objective as one can possibly be sometimes it’s better to hear a message from a god, spirit or w/e from someone else. Conversely, sometimes a diviner one goes to may not be able to get anything substantial on an issue while, in one’s own divinations, the message clearly shows up. Also, there are times when one’s own divinations are confirmed by a third-party (unbeknownst to themselves) which only serves to emphasize advice, insights, etc. received.


  4. And more the power to you, if you feel that is your calling. I have to admit that it can be frustrating when the entire weight of what I am saying is evaluated by a single post (especially when I have made other posts that occassionally make trips into related subjects that could give more clarity to my position that my friends and those who regularly keep up with my blog are aware of). But since I don’t want take up too much space here I will try to give the shorthand of my various thoughts.
    While I approach “seeing” with a bit of caution, and do hover back and forth and whether I think it is *necessary* (I am not questioning whether or not it is desirable or relevant, but I am personally undecided about whether or not it is *necessary*), I don’t dispute that there are seers. As I am a follower of Apollon, do perform several forms of divination for myself when I feel the need, and am a poet…I am a firm believer in divine inspiration. However, I *personally* distinguish an oracle as a seer who is, by selection, placed in the authority of the oracle (the place). Therefore an oracle is an oracle (again as per my understanding of things) when they instituted at a sacred site that is an oracle. The shorthand then is….all oracles are seers, but not all seers are oracles. This has nothing to do with a perceived gradient, but by the sole manner in which I am distinguishing what an oracle is. And I apologize if I didn’t spell it out adequately enough in my post.
    Now whether any given seer is legit is something for their customers to decide individually, and is no where near my call to make (and I wouldn’t want that job to make such a call for that matter lol). Since I do firmly believe in divine inspiration I am not going to even be willing to try to make any such determination (if it were even possible…which I do not think it is possible). I also, in a reply to a friend of mine, admitted that it doesn’t preclude that such oracles couldn’t arise in the future *shrugs*
    So those who think of themselves as oracles should very well just go on doing what they do if they feel it is their purpose, and time will tell to see if an oracle line/holy site manifests.
    That said, I do believe (as I have said in other one of my posts) that there is some difference between on hands divination systems, and seers who directly receive information from divine information without manual assistance of divination tools. That is about the only slight gradient that I particularly attribute. On the whole though seers are seers in my book.
    And as I have friends who do practice the mantic arts my rambling to myself and arranging my own thoughts shouldn’t be viewed as a dig at the practice, since I do have the highest regard and respect for those that I personally know. I, just like everyone, have my own opinions on the details.

    • I understand your frustration, but you have to remember that by keeping a public blog, people are going to sometimes read a post or two without following the full blog, and take what you say at face value.

      You seem, still, to be making a kind of pointless point, nitpicking over word usage. So what if other people say “oracle” when they mean something you would call “seer” – as I demonstrated, it’s all kind of inexact anyway since we’re translating concepts from another language. You’re also still questioning whether seers are “necessary” when I can show you that at least some people in the religion do think so – so regardless of if you personally feel a need for it, it’s clearly filling a need in the wider religion. Finally, as I said, if institutional oracles like the ones you’re describing are to arise eventually (as you say is possible), then they may be starting right now. Being dismissive of those doing that kind of foundational work because they do not yet have a recognized power spot and framework of support staff seems counter-productive at best. Why even mention it? Or was the whole point of the post to quibble over terminology?

      Not, by the way, fond of the use of the term “customers” to describe querents to any particular seer or oracle. Would you call those needing the services of a priest or purifier “customers” just because sometimes money is donated afterwards? I’m not running a business (if I were, I’d be broke), I am offering a religious service.

      I do agree, though, that there is a difference between mechanical divination and direct inspiration (although a talented mantis can use the former to induce the latter), in that many more people can learn the first than the second.

      In any case, I’m not really aiming at some long debate with you personally, but rather using your comments as a jumping off point, as I’ve heard them all made before by other people, and it was time I addressed them.

  5. i think it’s problematic when anyone says ‘i don’t need seers’ and then extends it into ‘we’ or ‘nobody’ or ‘the pagan community’ doesn’t need them. engaging the services of a seer (or oracle or mantis or diviner or reader or prophet, i loathe word quibbles unless there’s a Really Good Reason for them) should not and is rarely expected to supersede intuition, common sense or experience.
    i think it’s also a hard conversation to have without levels of experience being referenced at least briefly. i read my horoscope every day, but don’t attach much importance to it. i do tend to pay more attention to planetary conjuctions like mercury retrogrades and events that affect my own personal horoscope.
    then there are people, and i have many friends who fall into this category, who have a good basic acquaintance with some form of divination, be it cards or tea leaves or ornithomancy or whatever. i appreciate having people who are sensible, grounded and competent to check in with if i need some quick clarification and more distance than i can give reading for myself.
    then there are people like me, who have spent a lot of time (years) studying, practicing, working hard to improve, and who have some degree of peer review as i do through the neokoroi. while not naturally divinely gifted in this area, i truly believe that the gods have rewarded my diligence by augmenting my natural instincts and wisdom by heightening my awareness and, on occasion, speaking through me.
    and having had several oracular questions answered by you through direct trance communication, i myself have no doubt that you are a true seer, and that this has come to be not because you are better, or more holy, or more special than i, but because your life’s path has been to dedicate yourself utterly to this type of Work, a dedication i do not have the call or inclination to do to that depth.
    do i *need* you? no. do my querents *need* me? of course not.
    i don’t even know why that’s relevant. i don’t need the internet, or otto’s myth cult book, or my pythagorean tarot deck. that doesn’t mean they’re not useful, or real.

    • Like your last point a lot, Suz! Thank you for what you said, and let me return it by saying I have always found your divinations to be very insightful and helpful, and I do think you have a special skill in that, and have obviously put in the work!

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