A Greek Alphabet Oracle

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Kata Stoikheion

Khrêsmoi

Ek Olumpou

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In Litteras Digesta

Oracula

Ex Olympo

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© 1995, Apollonius Sophistes


Introduction

The following is an authentic ancient Greek alphabet oracle, which is from an inscription in Olympos, a city in ancient Lycia. Although many modern Pagans are familiar with rune-casting and similar systems, the divinatory use of the Greek alphabet is less well known. Each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding oracle, and the first word of the oracle (in Greek) begins with that letter. In the following translation, the Greek word (in its dictionary form) is enclosed in {curly braces} and follows the corresponding English word or phrase. There are at least three methods of consulting the alphabet oracle.

The first uses a set of 24 stones or potsherds (pottery fragments), each inscribed or painted with a letter of the alphabet.  Each stone should have one of the Greek letters (Α, Β, Γ, etc.), shown in the alphabet chart below. You can easily make the stones yourself (but make sure you can tell Μ and Σ apart) or buy them from a craftsperson.  Keep the stones in a jug, box, or bag, and when you want to consult the oracle, pick a stone without looking. (One ancient method was to shake the stones in a bowl or frame drum until one jumped out.)  This method is similar to the use of rune stones (and it’s interesting that most systems of rune casting use 24 runes). Stones used in this way would be called psêphoi (PSAY-foy) in Ancient Greek (calculi in Latin); inscribed or painted potsherds are ostraca in Greek (testae in Latin).

(see alphabet chart)

Second, five astragaloi (knuckle bones, tali) may be cast (or one astragalus five times). Look at the picture of the knucklebones in the figure to the right.  Since each knucklebone has four “sides,” traditionally given the values 1 (Monas), 3 (Trias), 4 (Tetras), and 6 (Hexas), there are 24 possible total values from five knucklebones: 5 to 30, excepting 6 and 29 (which are impossible). Heinevetter (p. 36) argues that the highest cast would be associated with Alpha and the lowest with Omega (so Alpha = 30, Beta = 28, Gamma = 27, …, Psi = 7, Omega = 5). The astragalos-values are given in the parentheses following the letter by the number after the hyphen. The knucklebone-values are given in the alphabet chart after the dash.  For example, if you throw 6-5-3-6-6, which adds to 26, your oracle is Delta (Δ). (See also the photo of astragali.)

Third, five dice (cuboi, tesserae) may be cast, with 26 possible total values, 5 through 30, which are associated in decreasing order (Heinevetter, p. 36) with the Greek letters, including the archaic Digamma (Wau) and Qoppa (so Alpha = 30, Beta = 29, Gamma = 28, …, Psi = 6, Omega = 5). The Olympian table does not give oracles for Digamma and Qoppa, however, and so the corresponding casts (25 and 13) are uninterpretable by it. (The practical solution is to recast.) The dice-values are listed before each hyphen. For example, if you throw 2-1-1-4-1, which add to 9, your oracle is Upsilon (Υ).

Interestingly, both 13 and 25 are uncanny numbers, associated with transgression of cycles or transcendence over them (e.g. 12 months, 24 hours). They are often associated with sacrificed and resurrected Gods (e.g., Dionysos was the Thirteenth Olympian). The wholly negative interpretation of 13 is no older than the Middle Ages, and 25 always has been accompanied by connotations of perfection (since it is the square of 5). (A. Schimmel, Mys. Num. pp. 203–8, 237)

The third number in the alphabet chart, following the semicolon in the parentheses following the letter, is the traditional numerical value of the Greek letter, which may be used in isopsêphia (Greek gematria); it is included for convenience. For example, by isopsephia, my name, Apollônios, is 1341.

The Olympian Oracle can be compared with the original I Ching, which was just a set of figures and corresponding oracle phrases. Over the centuries this austere divinatory system was extended with the commentary of the Ten Wings. In the same way I have supplemented the original Olympian oracle with interpretive aids. First, since oracles are characteristically ambiguous, my literal translation of the oracle (in quotes) is followed by alternative translations of significant words; a Greek reader would be aware of these additional meanings, but they are not otherwise apparent from the translation. All the foregoing is reasonably objective, but I have also added my own interpretations of the oracles, which I hope will aid their application in various circumstances. Of course, my commentary should not be considered final or definitive; use your own intuition.

The following invocation is adapted from a similar alphabet oracle found on the top of a mountain at Adada in Pisidia (Heinevetter, pp. 33–4):

Apollo, Lord, and Hermes, lead the way!
And thou, who wanders, this to thee we say:
Be still; enjoy the oracle’s excellence,
for Phoebus Apollo has given it to us,
this Art of Divination from our ancestors.


References

The Greek text of the Olympian oracle (from Heinevetter) is available as a PNG file.  A copy of the inscription of the similar Adadan oracle is also available (PNG) along with a transcription as ordinary Greek text (PNG).  This will illustrate what the original oracle looked like.

F. Heinevetter, Würfel- und Buchstabenorakel in Griechenland und Kleinasien, Breslau: 1912, p. 35. The source of the Olympian oracle (there incorrectly said to be from Limyra).

B. F. Cook, Greek Inscriptions (“Reading the Past” series), Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1987, pp. 8, 12. Source for archaic Greek alphabet and Greek numerals.

T. Curnow, The Oracles of the Ancient World: A Comprehensive Guide, Duckworth, 2004.  A survey of oracle sites in the ancient Mediterranean world, including alphabet and dice oracles.

W. R. Halliday, Greek Divination: A Study of its Methods and Principles, Chicago: Argonaut, 1967, pp. 215–6. A brief description of Greek alphabet oracles.

H. G. Liddell, R. Scott & H. S. Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968. The source for ancient Greek meanings.

J. Nolle, Mit den Augen der Götter, Zabern, 2005.  An up-to-date treatment of dice and alphabet oracles.

R. Ritsema & S. Karcher (trs.), I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change, Rockport: Element, 1994, pp. 11–14. Source for history of the I Ching.


The Olympian Oracle with Interpretations

Select a letter to go directly to interpretation: letter (astragaloi-dice; isopsephia)
Greek
Letter
D
i
c
e
A
s
t
r
Iso-
pse.
Oracle
ΑAlpha30301“The God [Apollo] says you will do everything {Hapanta} successfully.”
Do: achieve, bring about, effect, accomplish, make, manage, negotiate, transact, practice, fare; successfully: prosperously, luckily, with good fortune.
Your entire project will turn out well and you will meet all your goals. You will have good luck in all your activities, or prosperous business transactions and negotiations.
ΒBeta29282“With the help of Tychê [Fortune], you will have an assistant {Boêthos}, the Pythian [Apollo].”
Assistant: helper, auxiliary, one who hastens (theo) to the battle cry or other call for help (boê).
You are at a critical point, but if you are fortunate, Apollo the Far-shooter will help you if you call on Him. Even with luck, the God will only assist; ultimate responsibility is yours. “Pythian” refers to Apollo as the God at Delphi (which was in Pytho), one of the most important oracular sites. Therefore the help to be expected might be of a prophetic nature.
ΓGamma28273“Gaia [the Earth] {} will give you the ripe fruit of your labors.”
Ripe: complete, final; fruits: produce, returns, profits, results.
You will have a successful harvest, or you will reap all your profits from the Earth. The Mother of All will bring your labors to a fruitful conclusion. Gaia will give you your just deserts.
ΔDelta27264“In customs inopportune strength {Dunamis} is weak.”
Customs: rules, laws, allotments; inopportune: ill-timed, unreasonable, importunate, undue, not kairos (fit, in due measure, exact, at the appropriate or critical time, etc.); strength: power, ability, authority.
Ill-timed force will be ineffective; act with precision; timing is everything. Knowing where and when to strike is more important than strength; misapplied ability is disability. Blind conformity to customs is spineless; overly strict adherence to rules is self-defeating. Unreasonable or undue force will defeat itself; a tyrant must fall.
ΕEpsilon26255“You desire {Eraô} to see the offspring of righteous marriages.”
Desire: love, are in love with; offspring: seed, sowing; righteous: fitting, well-balanced.
This is a statement of fact, not a command or prediction. The obvious meaning is that the querant wants children or grandchildren from suitable marriages. However, it can also mean he or she is in love with seeing this, that is, obsessed by the idea. The “rightness” of the marriage admits many interpretations; it could be a terrible marriage if that was fitting and righteous (i.e. deserved). The oracle may also refer to seeds, other than children, sown by the marriage (e.g. family alliances, marrying into wealth or influence). Finally, marriage may be taken metaphorically to refer to any alliance or union.
ΖZeta24247“Flee the very great storm {Zalê}, lest you be disabled in some way.”
Storm: surge, distress; disabled: hindered.
Don’t make a sea-voyage in bad weather. It is futile to fight the force of the ocean; likewise, bucking the inevitable will weaken you and hinder your progress. Avoid raging storms of any kind; save your energy for when it can be effective. Sometimes flight is wiser than fight.
ΗEta23238“Bright Helios [Sun] {Hêlios}, who watches everything, watches you.”
The life-giving Sun will care for you. Helios is an enforcer of oaths and promises, and He knows the deceit in your heart.
ΘTheta22229“You have the helping Gods {Theoi} of this path.”
Helping: propitious, defending; path: road, course, way.
The “way” may be a concrete road, a plan of action, a spiritual path, a way of life, etc. In any case, the Gods who oversee this way will help and defend you, so you may go forward with confidence; you are under divine care because you are following your destiny.
ΙIota212110“There is sweat {Hidrôs}; it excels more than everything.”
Sweat: gum, exudation of trees; excels: is superior to, outlives, remains in hand, is a result, is around.
There will always be hard work; work is never done. Hard work is the surest means of success. When you have lost all other possessions, you still have your labor as an asset. The oracle recommends elbow-grease.
ΚKappa202020“To fight with the waves {Kuma} is difficult; endure, friend.”
Waves: swells, floods; difficult: hard to bear, do, or deal with, painful, grievous, dangerous; endure: delay.
In time, the force of ocean waves can grind down anything; they can be a metaphor for repetitive, unstoppable processes. It is difficult, dangerous, and painful to try to resist them; the sensible thing to do is to wait until they abate, or if that is impossible, then to endure the inevitable with courage.
ΛLambda191930“The one passing on the left {Laios} bodes well for everything.”
Passing: going through; bodes: shows, indicates, gives a sign, signifies, declares; well: rightly, happily, fortunately.
Since the left is traditionally the sinister side, the oracle may mean that an apparently sinister thing or event may be a blessing in disguise. The left is also associated with the unconscious, lunar mind, and so unconscious processes or intuition may signal a favorable outcome. A promising sign comes from an unpromising quarter.
ΜMu181840“It is necessary to labor {Mokhtheô}, but the change will be admirable.”
Labor: be weary, distressed; change: exchange; admirable: fair, beautiful, good, noble.
Through toil and distress a change will be made for the better. Hard work will result in a good return.
ΝNu171750“The strife-bearing {Neikêphoros} gift fulfils the oracle.”
Strife-: quarrel-, abuse-; gift: anything given; fulfils: confirms, perfects, brings to an end.
Something will be given (to you, by you, or from one to another) that brings strife with it; this will discharge the force of the oracle. The import seems to be that this gift will be the answer to the question asked of the oracle. So, for example, if the querant asked when something will happen, the gift is the sign that it’s immanent.
ΞXi161660“There is no fruit to take from a withered {Xêros} shoot.”
Fruit: produce, return, profit, result; withered: lean, harsh.
There is no good to be gained from an angry young man or woman. The frayed end of a good line. Harshness and stinginess will achieve nothing. You can’t get blood from a turnip; you can’t get water from a stone. Don’t polish a turd.
ΟOmicron151570“There are no {Ou} crops to be reaped that were not sown.”
Crops: fruit-trees, corn-fields, crop-lands; reap: mow, cut off; sown: engendered, begotten, scattered.
What we spread about, comes back to us. What goes around comes around. You must plan ahead in order to achieve anything.
ΠPi141480“Completing many {Polus} contests, you will seize the crown.”
Contests: struggles, trials, dangers; crown: wreath, garland.
If you persist in your struggles, after many trials you will succeed. Perseverance through adversity.
ΡRho1213100“You will go on more easily {Rhaion} if you wait a short time.”
Go on: live, continue; easily: willingly, recklessly, thoughtlessly; wait: stand fast, remain, stay.
If you will hold your ground for only a short time, you will be able to proceed (more easily or with greater cooperation). You will go faster by waiting than by going now; on the other hand, delaying too long may provoke reckless action. By standing fast you live recklessly. By remaining where you are, you live life thoughtlessly.
ΣSigma1212200“Phoibos [Apollo] speaks plainly {Saphôs}, ‘Stay, friend.’”
Plainly: distinctly, certainly; stay: wait, stand fast, remain.
Neither advance nor retreat; wait or hold your ground, as appropriate; the best action is inaction. “Phoibos” refers to Apollo as Bright and Pure, which also characterizes His advice in this oracle.
ΤTau1011300“You will have a parting from the {Tôn} companions now around you.”
Parting: release, deliverance; companions: those accompanying.
This may be an unwelcome parting from friends or a welcome release from enemies; in either case they are now around you. This may also mean a growing apart or forced separation of a person from his or her family, peers or fellow travelers on the path.
ΥUpsilon910400“The affair holds a noble undertaking {Huposkhesis}.”
Affair: deed, act, issue; holds: involves, implies, gives cause for, holds fast, hinders, guides, steers; noble: high-born, high-minded, excellent, notable; undertaking: engagement, promise, profession.
There is some issue to be resolved, or some deed is under consideration; it involves high-mindedness, either in commitment, deed, or professional pursuit. The oracle may tell us that the affair is admirable due to this noble element, or that the situation may guide us to seek the appropriate noble undertaking or profession. The hero’s quest. On the other hand, the oracle may mean that the situation hinders this fine undertaking. Thus you should try to understand the situation: does it demand an excellent undertaking or impede it?
ΦPhi89500“Having done something carelessly {Phaulos}, you will thereafter blame the Gods.”
Done: caused, accomplished, made, managed, negotiated, transacted, practiced, fared; carelessly: thoughtlessly, indifferently.
Take responsibility for your actions (or inactions); don't blame the Gods (or the universe, or fate, or society, or nature) for your own failings. The ancient Greeks said, “Hermes will help you get your wagon unstuck, but only if you push on it.”
ΧKhi78600“Succeeding, friend, you will fulfill a golden {Khruseos} oracle.”
Succeeding: gaining your end, hitting the mark, meeting someone; fulfill: bring to pass, cause, accomplish.
“Golden” may be a metaphor for rich, noble, excellent, etc. This admirable oracle will be fulfilled by you attaining your ends, or a mere chance meeting could constitute the golden event.
ΨPsi67700“You have this righteous judgment {Psêphos} from the Gods.”
Righteous: just, fitting, meet, fair; judgment: resolve, decree.
Literally, a psêphos (Lat. calculus) is a stone used for divination, voting, counting, and similar purposes, so this oracle refers to collective judgment rather than individual judgment. This implies that the majority of the Gods concur in this judgment, and that this judgment is appropriate, fair, and righteous, though there is no implication that the result is that desired by the querant.
ΩOmega55800“You will have a difficult {Ômos} harvest season, not a useful one.”
Difficult: cruel, rough, untimely, unripe; harvest season: fruit-time, autumn, summer bloom, bloom of youth; useful: suitable, apt.
Concretely, there will be a poor harvest, or autumn will be difficult; the harvest will be too early, before the fruit is ripe. More abstractly, too early grasping of the fruits of your labor (whether voluntary or necessary) will yield a poor return; the rewards will not be suitable for their purpose. Your youth will be rough; you will have to grow up before your time.

Keywords and Images

AlphaEverything {Hapanta}
BetaAssistant {Boêthos}
GammaGaia [the Earth] {Gê}
DeltaStrength {Dunamis}
EpsilonDesire {Erôs}
ZetaStorm {Zalê}
EtaHelios [Sun] {Hêlios}
ThetaGods {Theoi}
IotaSweat {Hidrôs}
KappaWaves {Kuma}
LambdaLeft {Laios}
MuLabor {Mokhthos}
NuStrife/bearing {Neikêphoros}
XiWithered {Xêros}
OmicronThere is Not {Ouk esti}
PiMany {Polla}
RhoEasily {Rhaion}
SigmaPlainly {Saphôs}
TauFrom the Companions {Tôn Parousôn}
UpsilonUndertaking {Huposkhesis}
PhiCarelessly {Phaulos}
KhiGolden {Khruseos}
PsiJudgement {Psêphos}
OmegaDifficult {Ômos}

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