In the northwest of Greece, south of Ioannina and situated in the midst of a lovely, peaceful green valley overlooked by the twin peaks of Mount Tomaros, is the Sanctuary of Dodoni. The whole area is scattered with ruins, including an imposing theatre, the sanctuary and an acropolis enclosed by fortified walls. Dodoni is held to be the oldest of the Greek oracles and is unique in its time. The oracle probably functioned from the Bronze Age (2500-1100 BC) to the end of the 4th century AD. The first mentions of the Dodoni occur in Homer’s epics of the 8th century BC and several ancient philosophers and geographers referred to it in subsequent works. One of the myths concerning the site revolves around the ship of Jason and the Argonauts, whose gift of prophecy lay in its unique wooden structure that contained a piece of the holy oak of Dodoni.
The oracle is thought to have begun with the cult of the Great Goddess, Mother Earth - the deity of abundance and fertility who dwelled in the roots of an oak tree. Zeus became an inhabitant of Dodoni and united with the Great Goddess to form a divine couple. The Goddess took the name of Dione which, like Zeus, means deity.
The Zeus of Dodoni is the opposite of the better-known Olympic Zeus, who lived atop Mount Olympus as King of the Gods, commanded thunder and lightning as his weapons, and formed a divine couple with Hera, the goddess of fertility. The Zeus of Dodoni, given the epithet Naios, meaning dweller, was the God of the power of the Earth personified. The divine couple had their abode in the oak tree. This type of tree is considered sacred by various cultures thanks to its supposed gift of attracting lightning - the spot where lightning struck the ground was regarded as sacred.
The oracles were received by the soothsayers of Zeus, the Selloi or the Helloi. According to Herodotus, these prophets slept on the ground and never washed their feet so as to be in constant contact with the earth from which they drew their oracular powers, interpreting the will of the god to mortals. Three elderly priestesses, the Peleiades, are also said to have been the voice of the oracle.
Dodoni is held to be the oldest of the Greek oracles and is unique in its time. The oracle probably functioned from the Bronze Age (2500-1100 BC) to the end of the 4th century AD.
From the 8th to the beginning of the 4th century BC, the oak tree was surrounded by cauldrons, which rested on bronze tripods. As all of the cauldrons were touching each other, whenever one of them was struck by lightning, the sound would reverberate through all the rest. The priests interpreted the will of the god from the sound of the cauldrons, from the rustling of the leaves of the oak tree and from the flight of the doves that nested in its boughs. Petitioners would write questions on small strips of lead, some of which can still be seen today in the Archaeological Museum of Ioannina.
Around the 4th century BC, a small temple of Zeus was built beside the holy oak and a low stone wall took the place of the tripods. The votive sounds were replaced by two columns topped by statues: the first of a boy with a whip in his hand, and the second of a bronze cauldron. When the wind blew, the whip would strike against the cauldron, creating the prophetic sounds.
In the early 3rd century BC, Phyrros, King of Epirus, began an ambitious building programme. Although he did not change the Temple of Zeus itself, he replaced the low stone wall with a stoa comprising three Ionic colonnades which surrounded the court and the holy oak. The historian Polybius gave the temple the name Hiera Oikia or ‘Sacred House’. The Temples of Dione, Themis and Aphrodite were built at the same time and a fortified acropolis was constructed above the sanctuary.
King Phyrrus also started to construct an imposing theatre for the festivals of the Naia in honour of Zeus Naios, hosting athletic games, musical contests and drama competitions. This theatre, seating 17,000 in its heyday and built into the hillside, is one of the largest in antiquity and certainly a sight to behold!
In 219 BC, the Sanctuary was burnt down by the Aetolians. However, they preferred to demolish the Sacred House rather than burn it, probably to avoid destroying the holy oak. The Sacred House could not be kept down for long, however, as in 218 BC, Thermos in Aetolia was attacked and plundered by the Macedonians and the Epirotes, who used their stolen hoard to rebuild the destroyed Sanctuary of Dodoni.
The Sanctuary remained unchanged until 168/167 BC when it was destroyed once again, this time by the Romans. Emperor Augustus and Hadrian rebuilt it, however, and Emperor Augustus converted the theatre into an arena.
At the end of the 4th c. AD, the cult of Zeus was succeeded by Christianity. In 393 the holy oak was dug out of the ground by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in order to eradicate the pagan traditions. A three-aisled basilica was constructed on the site in the 5th or the 6th c. AD with reused ancient materials.
Dodoni is open every day from 08.00hrs – 15.00hrs, entrance fee 2 Euro.