Italy

The Ancient Oracles : Sibyls, Pythias, and Prophecy

The ancient oracles were the priestesses and mystics that served their community by entering trance states to communicate with the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome as well as many other regions in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. They had many names but often held the titles of “Sibyl” and “Pythia.”

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Contact and communication with the divine has been a primary aspect of human spiritual practices from ancient times to the present. The various methods of communication/communion have long been known as divination.  The word “divination” is derived from the Latin divinare, “to be inspired by god”,  and divinus, “of a god.” Divination is basically the cultural practices of humans that allow us to communicate with the divine and acquire knowledge of the unseen, archetypal, and omnipotent past, present, and future energies that are influencing our daily lives as well as our fate and destiny.


Divination, to the ancients, and to many of us today, is a healing tradition that aligns humans both individually and collectively with the words and will of the sacred forces that intersect our physical realm.  Divination is a medicine that comes from what some may know as gods and goddesses or as others may know as the universal currents and unseen spirits of nature and the Otherworld as they exist in dynamic exchange with living matter. The methods of divination have changed, and continue to change, through time. Based on my own research and direct experience I have surmised that, as people became more civilized/human-centered and therefore more disconnected from natural rhythms, they required more complicated and ritualized forms of contacting the spiritual energies of the Earth (otherwise known as Gods and Goddesses).


The transition in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) from a deep, rhythmic Earthly life embodied by spirit to our modern rational, standardized cosmology where a male divinity resides somewhere else and his words have been frozen and literalized in print, began with the end of the “Civilization of the Goddess” as determined by the great (and controversial) work of renowned archeologist Marija Gimbutas. Gimbutas discovered vast evidence of a pre-pagan society known as “Old Europe” that was matricentered and peaceful with no evidence of war. The corresponding mythos still holds strong threads of powerful feminine forces with the very creation story beginning with the Sky Goddess Ge or Gaia giving birth to the world. 


“Ge”, from which the name Gaia is derived, is from ancient Greek meaning “land” or “Earth.” It is from Gaia that all things were made and she was thought to be the deity that communicated with the original oracles. These oracles were living people known as Pythias, Oracles, and Sibyls, often female bodied but not always, that were capable of deep receptivity and trance that allowed them to become a channel for the divine will. 


These oracles that once spoke amidst the Greco-Roman landscape belonged to the mythos of Old Europe and the pre-pagan divine feminine where Earth was born from the womb of the Goddess. The modern region of Italy still runs rich and deep with sacred serpentine rivers, blessed mountain sanctuaries of worship, the ruins of dream temples, and caves that reverberate with the ancient prophetic voices old gods. Although the power and agency of feminine forces on Earth and in the Otherworlds has been usurped by first Pagan, and then Christian based patriarchal rule that has it leveled itself upon the dark, volcanic soils of the Mediterranean world, the ritual arts and healing practices of the Goddess culture continue to entwine with the changing culture.

The ancient oracles are thought to have been either fully human or part human/demi-gods. They are often considered to have been female but it’s likely that they were many gendered people with a feminine propensity to be receptive. 

Some of the oldest written documentation about the oracles of the Mediterranean came from the divinatory practices of the temple priests and priestesses in Italy, Greece, Mesoptamia, Egypt, and Persia among other possible locations. The oracles were such a prominent part of the culture at this time that Michelangelo painted them on the Sistine Chapel.


Cumaean Sibyl : Sistine Chapel

Cumaean Sibyl : Sistine Chapel

Delphic Sibyl : Sistine Chapel

Delphic Sibyl : Sistine Chapel

Several sources trace the first Oracles to North Africa:

Some said that this long line of oracles originated in north Africa. A Greek tradition held that the Libyan goddess Lamia gave birth to the first Pythia, fathered by Zeus. Lamia was called "the first woman who chanted oracles, and they say that she was named Sibyl by the Libyans.” [Pausanias, X, xii, in Olmsted, 67] This story accords with other Greek accounts of north African settlements and cultural influence, as well as archaeological finds of archaic Greek vessels with human figurines painted in a Libyan style. The African influence is most dramatically reflected in the tradition that “Black Doves” founded the oracular shrine of Dodona” ~Max Dashu


For 6,000 years, Africa was ruled by a powerful order of Sibyl matriarchs. They produced the world's first oracles, prophetess and prophets. known as "Pythoness," they worked the oracles in the Black Egyptian colonies in ancient Greece, Rome, Turkey, Israel, Syria and Babylon. Their holy temples were more numerous than the churches of today. In ancient Rome, they first established the "holy seat" of the Vatican advising the world's heads of state. Centuries before Christ, they cured epileptics, the blind, lepers and casted out demons. It was a Sibyl who called-up the spirit of "Apostle" Samuel. Their "pagan" prophecies were used by the emerging Roman papals to create a western theological foundation and became the undisputed precursor for their Christian Bible. African women's religious history is finally being unearthed, exposing shocking revelations buried for more than 2000 years.’ ~From Mama Zogbe: Chief Hounon Mami Wata Vodoun Amengansie Priestess http://mamiwata.com/index8/index12.html 


All of the ancient oracles were dedicated to communion with a specific god, goddess, or nature spirit that spoke through them. At Delphi they have been called “Pythias” and were thought to have been in voice of Ge/Gaia and her water serpent or draikana (she-dragon) whose name was “Pytho.” According to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Apollo slayed the serpent and took over the oracle who then became the voice of Apollo. 

“Many and different are the stories told about Delphoi, and even more son about the oracle of Apollon. For they say that in earliest times the oracular seat belonged to Ge (Earth), who appointed as prophetess at it Daphnis, one of the Nymphai (Nymphs) of the mountains.”  ~From Pausanias, Description of Greece 


The oracles have also been known as “Sibyls.” Sibyl/Sibyla, according to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus comes from sibyllainein, "to be inspired in one's tongue." The Sibyl’s occupied several locations around the ancient Mediterranean and serving as the voice of the local deity of each place. So for instance, the Sibyl of Cumae was located in the vicinity of the temple of the god Apollo and she was his voice/oracle and those that heard her prophecy heard the words of Apollo himself.

These oracular positions were held for the entire lifetime of the person and were transferred from Sibyl to Sibyl over many generations. It is also thought that in some locations there may have been multiple Sibyls living at the same time and each with the necessary training and skill of prophecy. These oracles were generally located in removed but accessible temples and caves where they lived aesthetic lives devoted to their god or goddess. 

The oracles were often consulted by Kings and Emperors usually for information about the strategy and outcome of political strategy, control of power, and war outcomes. They were also consulted by common folks about various matters of love, life, and death. In Book VI Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid he describes the Greek hero Aeneas seeking the Sibyl of Cumae (modern day Naples, Italy) to guide him into the underworld so he may meet with the spirit of his dead father.

Entrance to the cave of the Sibyl of Cumae.

Entrance to the cave of the Sibyl of Cumae.

The hallway that seekers would walk to get to the Sibyl’s cave. It is thought that this walk was part of the process of entering the “womb” or “source” of knowledge.

The hallway that seekers would walk to get to the Sibyl’s cave. It is thought that this walk was part of the process of entering the “womb” or “source” of knowledge.

The cave of Sibyl. Seekers would wait on those benches for her to come out of her cave with her prophecy.

The cave of Sibyl. Seekers would wait on those benches for her to come out of her cave with her prophecy.

There have been at least 10 known Sibylline oracles:

1. Chaldean (of the line of Noah)

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia  (1835/1845), as imagined by  Eugène Delacroix

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), as imagined by Eugène Delacroix

2. Libyan

3. Delphian

4. Italian

5. Erythrean

6. Samian

7. Cumean

8. Hellespontian

9. Phrygian

10. Tiburtian

"Sibylline Oracles," in Lexham Bible Dictionary (ed. John Barry; Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016). Robert C. Kashow



The Oracular Trance

There are several theories about how the oracles were able to commune, channel, and prophesize the words of the divine. Some sources contend that they were simply gifted mediums or psychics. But more commonly, it is believed that they used a substance or substances to induce an altered state. 

Arrived at Cumae, when you view the flood

Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood,

The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,

Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclined.

She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,

The notes and names, inscrib’d, to leaf commits.
— Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI

The possible trance inducing substances include the volcanic vapors or steam that rose up from fissures between rocks. Archeological excavation has uncovered two geological fault lines beneath the ruins of the temple at Delphi that are formed in such a way that it releases petrochemical (hydrocarbons) vapors that have been identified as methane, ethane, and ethylene. Ethylene, in particular, is considered a “narcotic gas” as determined by the pioneering work of anesthesiologist Isabella Herb who found that a dose of 20% ethylene or less given to patients induced an altered state, euphoria, and trance-like states.

In the center of the world, a fissure opened from the black depths of Earth, and waters flowed from a spring. The place was called Delphoi (“Womb”). In its cave sanctuary lived a shamanic priestess called the Pythia—Serpent Woman. Her prophetic power came from a she-dragon in the Castalian spring, whose waters had inspirational qualities. She sat on a tripod, breathing vapors that emerged from a deep cleft in the Earth, until she entered trance and prophesied by chanting in verse.  

The shrine was sacred to the indigenous Aegean earth goddess. The Greeks called her Ge, and later Gaia. Earth was said to have been the first Delphic priestess. [Pindar, fr. 55; Euripides, Iphigenia in Taurus, 1234-83. This idea of Earth as the original oracle and source of prophecy was widespread. The Eumenides play begins with a Pythia intoning, “First in my prayer I call on Earth, primeval prophetess...” [Harrison, 385] Ancient Greek tradition held that there had once been an oracle of Earth at the Gaeion in Olympia, but it had disappeared by the 2nd century. [Pausanias, 10.5.5; Frazer on Apollodorus, note, 10] “ ~The Pythias; excerpted from Secret History of the Witches by Max Dashu 

The Pythia pictured here above a fissure with steam or smoke rising

John Collier: Priestess at Delphi

John Collier: Priestess at Delphi

Another possibility is that they used mind-altering or hallucinogenic plants such as Oleander or Laurel. These were most likely burned and inhaled as smoke. There are some suggestions that they may have taken a type of hallucinogenic preparation made with honey and possibly bee venom. Of course, there is a long history in European shamanism, witchcraft, and prophecy that involves the use of ointments and salves as modes of delivery for hallucinogenic substances.

Many images show the oracle leaning over a tripod with smoke exuding from it.

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Other indications strongly suggest that the oracles induced a trance by using snake venom. There is solid evidence of snake worship, snake tending, and divinatory rites that involved live snakes as well as mythical serpents. Many sacred temples and centers of worship housed various species of snakes that were cared for by the priests and priestesses that operated the temples.

“Among the Romans a serpent-cult is mainly connected with the animals as embodying the genius, and snakes were kept in large numbers in temples and houses. The Greek cult of the serpent Asklepios probably influenced the Romans……A more native aspect of the cult is seen in serpent cave Lanuvium, whither virgins were taken yearly to prove their chastity.” ~Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics

The evidence for the snake venom theory is primarily in the snake imagery found on artifacts from this time period in and around sacred temples. The few written sources that exist point towards the use of cobra or krait snake venom, each of which can produce hallucinations. Also, it is speculated that the ancients knew how to inoculate themselves from the deadly effects of snake bite exposing themselves small amounts of snake venom. This would allow them to be bitten and survive but still receive the hallucinogenic effects of the venom.

This image below is one of the “sleeping giantess” at Bomarzo Park in Viterbo, Italy where we learned her two fingers stretched out as they are symbolized the practice of a snake-bite induced sleep/trance.

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Here the same symbol is shown on this statue of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

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The practice and art of divination and prophecy in the ancient world happened in every culture on Earth and was a primary aspect of social and spiritual life. The oracles of the Mediterranean were one of many ways that humans sought to communicate with powers beyond their own as well as how they sought to further understand themselves. As the inscription outside of the Temple at Delphi says:

γνῶθι σεαυτόν
Know Thyself

For more information on the ancient oracles and the history of the divine feminine in ancient Europe:

Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics

Max Dashu’s The Suppressed Histories Archives

Civilization of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas

Descent to the Goddess by Sylvia Brinton Perera

"'I Will Speak . . . with My Whole Person in Ecstasy': Instrumentality and Independence in the Sibylline Oracles." by Olivia Stewart Lester *This is an academic journal article that can be downloaded from the link for free if you put in your email and sign up for an account



The Mermaid's Daughter

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This June I’ll be taking a return pilgrimage to my ancestral homeland of Italy. I am currently preparing for it by spending time in deep study and listening with my family lineage and ancestry. My grandparents were Italian immigrants and my relationship with them has had a profound impact on the shaping of who I am. I grew up in an immigrant and refugee community in the city of Utica, NY. My neighborhood, during the 1970’s and 80’s, consisted of mainly 1st and 2nd generation Italian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Lebanese, some German, and Vietnamese immigrants. I really didn’t understand or consider my neighborhood an “immigrant community” at the time, however. I just thought we were all Americans. This was my America; the statue of liberty took us in, “America is made of immigrants, a melting pot”, a place of refuge from famine, fascism, war, and colonization. My mother is 2nd generation Irish and she still carries An Gorta Mór/The Great Hunger in her belly, as do I.

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me and non an pop.jpg

At the same time as I knew myself as an American, I also knew I was from “somewhere else.” It felt to me like it does when there is a shadow or a slight motion just out of the corner of your eye. It’s a sense of not quite being in place, almost like missing a beat in a silent rhythm.  There were times when I would catch glimpses of it; the way my grandfather ended all of his English words with a vowel sound, my grandmother talking about the superstitions of the “Old Country”, the way my great-aunt only spoke Italian and would do so while looking me straight in the eye as if I should somehow understand her.

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Irish language speaker and poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill describes it perfectly in her poem, Cuimhne an Uisce/A Recovered Memory of Water about the loss of Irish language.

Here it is in both Irish and English:

Cuimhne an Uisce


Uaireanta nuair a bhíonn a hiníon

sa seomra folctha

ag glanadh a fiacla le slaod tiubh

is le sód bácála,

tuigtear di go líonann an seomra suas

le huisce.



Tosnaíonn sé ag a cosa is a rúitíní

is bíonn sé ag slibearáil suas is suas arís

thar a másaí is a cromáin is a básta.

Ní fada

go mbíonn sé suas go dtí na hioscaidí uirthi.

Cromann sí síos ann go minic ag piocadh suas

rudaí mar thuáillí láimhe nó ceirteacha

atá ar maos ann.

Tá cuma na feamnaí orthu—

na scothóga fada ceilpe úd a dtugaidís

‘gruaig mhaighdean mhara’ nó ‘eireabaill mhadraí rua’ orthu.

Ansan go hobann téann an t-uisce i ndísc

is ní fada

go mbíonn an seomra iomlán tirim arís.



Tá strus uafásach

ag roinnt leis na mothúcháin seo go léir.

Tar éis an tsaoil, níl rud ar bith aici

chun comparáid a dhéanamh leis.

Is níl na focail chearta ar eolas aici ar chor ar bith.

Ag a seisiún síciteiripeach seachtainiúil

bíonn a dóthain dua aici

ag iarraidh an scéal aisteach seo a mhíniú

is é a chur in iúl i gceart

don mheabhairdhochtúir.



Níl aon téarmaíocht aici,

ná téarmaí tagartha

ná focal ar bith a thabharfadh an tuairim is lú

do cad é ‘uisce’.

‘Lacht trédhearcach,’ a deir sí, ag déanamh a cruinndíchill.

‘Sea,’ a deireann an teiripí, ‘coinnibh ort!’

Bíonn sé á moladh is á gríosadh chun gnímh teangan.

Deineann sí iarracht eile.

‘Slaod tanaí,’ a thugann sí air,

í ag tóraíocht go cúramach i measc na bhfocal.

‘Brat gléineach, ábhar silteach, rud fliuch.’

A Recovered Memory of Water

Sometimes when the mermaid’s daughter

is in the bathroom

cleaning her teeth with a thick brush

and baking soda

she has the sense the room is filling

with water.




It starts at her feet and ankles

and slides further and further up

over her thighs and hips and waist.

In no time

it’s up to her oxters.

She bends down into it to pick up

handtowels and washcloths and all such things

as are sodden with it.

They all look like seaweed—

like those long strands of kelp that used to be called

‘mermaid-hair’ or ‘foxtail.’

Just as suddenly the water recedes

and in no time

the room’s completely dry again.




A terrible sense of stress

is part and parcel of these emotions.

At the end of the day she has nothing else

to compare it to.

She doesn’t have the vocabulary for any of it.

At her weekly therapy session

she has more than enough to be going on with

just to describe this strange phenomenon

and to express it properly

to the psychiatrist.




She doesn’t have the terminology

or any of the points of reference

or any word at all that would give the slightest suggestion

as to what water might be.

‘A transparent liquid,’ she says, doing as best she can.

‘Right,’ says the therapist, ‘keep going.’

He coaxes and cajoles her towards word-making.

She has another run at it.

‘A thin flow,’ she calls it,

casting about gingerly in the midst of the words

‘A shiny film. Dripping stuff. Something wet.’

Being the granddaughter of immigrants and American, with very little knowledge of my family beyond 2 or 3 generations back, I feel very much like the mermaid’s daughter. Knowing that there is something familiar speaking to me in the water, but not knowing the language to hear it:

“in the bathroom

cleaning her teeth with a thick brush

and baking soda

she has the sense the room is filling

with water.”



The vague belonging to “somewhere else” that I experienced as a child and throughout my adult years has grown into a rich and generative path to self knowledge and a developing connection to my ancestors in both Italy and Ireland, as well as an intrinsic sense of “home” but for which I didn’t:

“have the terminology

or any of the points of reference

or any word at all that would give the slightest suggestion

as to what water might be”

Feroleto Antico, Calabria, Italy

Feroleto Antico, Calabria, Italy

Although as a child I wasn’t conscious that I longed for belonging or a sense of home, I had some inner craving or spark that drove me to prod my grandfather with questions about where he came from. I hung on every word of his stories about this “somewhere else” place that seemed to me a mysterious, magical, far off world. My grandpa spoke of “my village” of Feroleto Antico in Calabria, Italy.

I remember asking him to say it again, “Where are you from?” “CAh-lah-bree-ya”, he’d say.

Ohhh, CAh-lah-bree-yaahh! It sounds so beautiful!

Do you miss it?

Whenever I asked him this, his eyes would darken and his expression would grow dim. He would look away and lean back like he was remembering something. My heart would tighten and my throat would clench. I wanted him to say something that made sense to me. Something that I could compare it to. I wanted to know the word for water. So I kept asking.

Do you miss it?

Finally he’d answer, “I was always hungry there. My belly hurt. By the end of the week we had nothing but hard bread for dinner. That’s why my teeth are so strong! Every now and then a goat would come through and if you had a coin you could get some milk. Mussolini was in power and we had nothing.”

He’d continue:

“My village was on a mountain and when you looked either east or west you had a view of the sea. There was always a breeze. We lived off the fat of the land because that was all we had.  We raised chickens and every family took turns helping each other. There was a large olive press that we all shared and each family had their day to press olive oil. There was a donkey that would walk in circles turning the press. We told time by a sundial. It was in the piazza so everyone could see it.”

sundial in the piazza of Feroleto

sundial in the piazza of Feroleto

My grandmother was born in Benevento in the province of Campania. When I asked about Benevento my grandfather always answered by saying it’s “la città delle streghe, the city of witches. Anche il vento*! Even the wind is bad there!” And he would laugh and laugh.

*This is written in Italian. My grandfather said it in his dialect that I don’t know how to write so I translated it into Italian.

My passion and devotion to studying my ancestral traditions is what is leading me back to Italy again where I will be going to Benevento for the first time. While there I will be meeting  and learning from the traditional healers/witches who continue to carry the old traditions of the region today. Benevento was an ancient center for the worship of the goddess Diana and the cult of Isis. There is a long tradition of witchcraft there as it was a center for the indigenous shamanic traditions of Italy during the inquisition. In fact, there were no witch trials or executions of witches in Benevento because of a deal made with Rome, hence it became a sanctuary for pre-Christian healers and spiritual practices.

my Nonna, bottom right, and her mother and sisters

my Nonna, bottom right, and her mother and sisters

Many of these practices are known to Italian Americans as the “superstitions” of their grandparents, such as the “malocchio” or the “evil eye.”  The traditional healers in Italy use various methods of curing the malocchio and other illnesses with rituals and prayers. Many herbal remedies are incorporated as healing tools and modes of invoking protection.  Ritual chanting, dance, and celebrations still happen to honor some of the old gods and goddesses as well as Christain saints and the blessed Madonnas.

As I am discovering more about the traditions of my ancestors I am gaining the words, the terminology, and the points of reference for that which I have never had before. The sense of something moving in the periphery of who I am is becoming less of a sense and more of a knowing. Learning my ancestral traditions informs my understanding of myself as American because it enables me to track back the paths that led my people here and how their traditions, my traditions, have evolved through the generations. It also informs the possibilities for how those traditions might emerge in the future.

One of the questions that always comes up around talk about ancestry is, what about those of us who are adopted or don’t know our ancestry? This is very common and there is some amazing folks doing work in this area. We all have ancestors and ancestral traditions. Certainly, some of us have to dig deeper and further to find them but the possibilities for connection are infinite. Below is a link to the work of Kimi Kawabori who works with adoptees doing ancestral recovery:

https://www.kimiko.life/bio

To stay in the loop and up to date with my upcoming pilgrimage follow me on instagram and facebook where I will be posting regularly during my trip!

Stairs going down to the water from the Temple of Hera Lacinia, Crotone, Calabria

Stairs going down to the water from the Temple of Hera Lacinia, Crotone, Calabria

Basilico~Sweet Basil Magick

Basilico~Sweet Basil Magick

“Where Basil grows, no evil goes” ~Old Adage

“Make sure and add some basilico!” Was a common phrase in the kitchen on Sunday at my grandparent’s house when I was growing up. Basilico is the Italian word for Basil. Whenever someone came to visit in the summer they would ask, “How’s your garden this year?” This meant, “Give me a garden tour so I can make sure you’ve planted your tomatoes and to see if they look as good as mine.”

After a thorough tomato inspection the next question was, “Where is your basilico?!” My Italian family members always wanted to see the garden, and the elders, specifically my grandfather and great-uncles, were always adamant about seeing the garden and inspecting the contents. Everyone grew some traditional Italian food even if it was just a couple of tomato plants growing in pots on the front porch. Even when my grandparents moved to the Adirondack Mountains, where the soil is sand and rock, they turned and  toiled the land next to their little cabin enriching the soil and installing deer fences so they could plant basil and tomatoes. 

Growing tomatoes, basil, and parsley was part of honoring and respecting my family and our Italian heritage.