The Oracle

Originally published in SageWoman

The Oracle

by Diana L. Paxson

In the far north of the world a line of snow capped mountains runs down to an icy firth. Beyond them the land rolls away beneath the eternal glaciers of Greenland’s interior, pale under the starlight, gleaming when the aurora borealis sends rainbow flickers across the night sky, for in Greenland, after Midsummer the days grow shorter swiftly, and now the early dark of autumn cloaks the land.

At the feet of the mountains is a little cluster of buildings built of sod. From an opening in the roof of the largest smoke is rising. Beyond the stone walls that surround the steading lie the outlands, where wander wild beasts and things more dangerous because they are unseen. Inside the hall the air is warm, heavy with the scents of wet wool and horse and human bodies, welcome after the chill of the wind. To the folk within, Thorkel’s garth is an island of safety in a harsh world.

It has been harsher than usual this year. The hay crop did badly and it will be hard to get their cows and sheep through the winter. The fall hunting parties, who should have filled storehouses with enough meat to feed the folk till spring, found few beasts to kill, and the men who went out fishing made poor catches or never returned. There has been much sickness as well. How can the families that live around Herjolfsnes survive until next year?

But they are not without hope, for in the Settlement there still lives a volva called Thorbjorg, last of a company of nine seeresses, who can journey between the worlds and prophesy what will come. She arrived the night before, wrapped in her blue cloak and leaning on her staff and saying nothing. She has eaten porridge made with milk from Thorkel’s goats and a stew of the hearts of all the kinds of beasts there are on his land. The high seat with its cushion of hen’s feathers is waiting. Soon, surely, they will know.

The murmur of conversation stills as Thorkel escorts the Volva forward. But even now they cannot begin, for where are the women to sing the sacred song, the “vardhlokur”, which will put the Volva into trance so that she can fortell? They ask among the women, but none of them knows it. Only Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir has been taught the song, and she is a Christian woman and fears to get involved in this pagan ritual.

“You could help the people,” says Thorbjorg, “and still be no worse a woman than before.” But it is the master of the farm who makes clear to Gudrid that all their lives may depend on her participation, and so the volva ascends the high seat, and the women make a circle around her, and Gudrid begins to sing.

Her voice is sweet and true. The seeress mutters and sways. Gradually her breathing deepens; the people draw closer, for shadows are gathering. In the high seat, the seeress yawns. A breath of air makes the fire flicker and the headcloths of the women flutter. Men look around, aware of something invisible with them in the room. Thorbjorg twitches suddenly, then straightens facing Gudrid, though her eyes are closed.

Men blink and stare, and one of the Christian women crosses herself and backs away, for the pleasant, homely features of the seeress have been transformed to a mask, as smooth as if chiseled from stone, with an uncanny beauty, and they know that they are seeing not the human woman, but The Volva, most ancient of oracles, whom even the god Odin sought in order to learn her wisdom.

“Maiden, I thank you–” the woman’s voice is different too, harsh and commanding. In the hall the only other sound is the crackling of the fire. “Around me now the spirits gather, drawn by your sweet singing. Many have come who before wished to keep their distance and would not heed us. Now I see many things which earlier were hidden. Thorkel, come here–“

Men draw aside to let the master of the hall through. He stands before the seeress, his florid face a little pale. Though her eyes are still closed, the Volva appears to consider him, and laughs.

“There is no need to be afraid. . . . This I can tell you. This famine will not outlast the winter. The season will mend when spring comes. And the sickness which has afflicted you will cease soon as well. This now you know, would you know more?”

“Not at this time,” he mutters, “but there are others who have questions.”

The Volva smiles, “Let the maiden who sang come here and I will repay her for her help, for her fate is now clear to me.” Gudrid stands before her with bowed head, listening. “You will make a fine match here in Greenland, but the marriage will not last long. Your way lies out to Iceland, where you will bear a great and goodly family, and over them will shine beams of glory too bright for me to describe. And so, my daughter, farewell, and happiness go with you.”

Gudrid sits down again, wondering, and one by one others come near the Volva, and ask their questions, and are answered. And when all are done, Thorkel calls the seeress by her human name, and in a little while she begins to jerk and slumps, and when she sits up again and opens her eyes, she is Thorbjorg herself once more. . . .

That is how the seeresses of the Viking world served their people. The account of Thorbjorg’s prophecy appears in the Saga of Eirik the Red, and it is said that almost everything that she had spoken came true as she had foretold.

The prophetic seance is common to most of the Indo-European peoples. Among the Celts, the bean-drui, or she-druids, learned the skill as well as their male counterparts. The nine priestesses who lived on the isle of Sena off the Breton coast were said to be skilled in prophecy. Farther south, the well known Sibyl of Cumae and the Delphic Oracle were only two of a multitude of prophets. From ancient times to the present people have sought to understand the present and foresee the future.

These days, when channelers advertise in every metaphysical magazine, and storefront Tarot and palm readers operate on every mainstreet, it is clear that people continue to feel the need for supernatural guidance, and seek out those who through true vision or simply by good counseling skills, can help them. Now, as then, there are also false prophets, and in order to use such services wisely it is important to understand how they worked in the past and what we have learned about the process today.

Norse Oracles

Seidh. The northern version of oracular divination described above is one of the practices referred to as “seidh”, which also includes spell casting, weatherworking, and trance journeying of various kinds and is usually translated as “witchcraft”. The oracular tradition was very strong in northern Europe, and a variety of titles– “volva”, “seidhkona”, “spákona”, are used for its practitioners.

In earlier days there had apparently been many who were trained in this skill, both men and women, who travelled in companies from community to community. Their expertise seems to have been the result of long training. The procedure, as described in Eiriksaga and others, was for the seidhkona to come to a farmstead and take at least a day to “tune in” to the environment before performing. It is possible that the ceremonial meal of hearts from different animals found on the farm also assisted in linking her to the land. In order to prophesy, she was seated on a seidhhjallR, a high seat or raised platform, a detail which appears most consistently in the accounts.

Trance was induced by the singing of a sacred song, the vardhlokkur, the “ward lock” or “spirit lock”, from which our “warlock” comes. This might result from the repetition of the chant, or from a conditioned response to the song. In the Greenland story, the volva seems to have gotten her information from the spirits. Elsewhere the source of the knowledge is not mentioned. The Volva in Voluspá, who is herself almost a divine being, seems to apprehend it clairvoyantly. Astral journeying is not specifically mentioned in this context, but such journeys are not only found elsewhere in Norse literature, but are standard practice in most shamanic cultures, so they are at least a possibility. In some of the Eddic poems it is also possible that the person providing information is possessed by a god.

The seidh groups seem to have been led by a senior priestess, assisted by her students. As Christian influence increased, their numbers grew fewer, and the craft was only practiced by women. It is not surprising if women clung to this skill, for the Germanic peoples traditionally ascribed exceptional spiritual power to women. In the first century, the Romans learned to fear the influence of such prophetesses as Veleda and Aliruna on the German tribes.

Oracular goddesses. Because of this tradition, all Norse goddesses to some extent seem to possess prophetic talents, but two, Frigga and Freyja, are particularly associated with it. Of Frigga, whom I have discussed at greater length in an earlier article, it is said that she “knows all fates but says nothing,” (“Lokasenna”: 29). In her manifestation as Vor, however, “She is wise and enquiring, so that nothing can be concealed from her. There is a saying that a woman becomes aware (vor) of something when she finds it out.” (“Gylfaginning”: 35). This passage appears to suggest that clairvoyance may in fact be an intensification of so-called “women’s intuition”.

Freyja, known to most as the Norse analogue of Aphrodite, has also an aspect in which she is mistress of magic. It is she who is credited with having taught the craft of seidh to the Aesir, the gods. Heide is sometimes considered to be her “witchy” aspect. In the sagas, many of the seeresses whose deeds are reported have the name “Heide”, to the point where modern translators sometimes render it as “witch”.

The Volva whom Odin seeks out in the underworld is a primal being of great power. She it is who delivers the great prophecy called “Voluspá”, the sayings of the Volva, in which the beginnings of the world are recounted, as are the events that will lead to Ragnarók at its end. Wagner drew upon this material for the figure of the “Vala”, mother of the norns and the valkyries, who appears in the operas Rheingold and Seigfried, and is also identified with Erde, Mother Earth.

The Norns. Finally, we must not forget the three Norns, who play a role similar in some ways to that of the Fates of Classical myth in the cosmology of the north. According to the Younger Edda,

There stands beautiful hall under the ash by the well, and out of this hall come three maidens, whose names are UrdhR, Verdandi, Skuld. These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them norns. There are also other norns who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives. . . .”
(“Gylfaginning”: 15)

The meanings of their names have been much discussed. The name of the first norn, UrdhR, may come from a word which means the past, and is often translated as “wyrd”, which means in the old sense something like “fate”. The destiny which the word indicates, however, is not so much a thing predetermined as an outcome that is shaped by the interaction between events and an individual’s reactions. The second norn, Verdandi— “being” in an active sense, or “happening”– knows the present. The name Skuld, the third, is related to “shall”. She is sometimes referred to as “Necessity” and is held to know the future. Together, they understand how the events of the past have shaped the present that is coming into being, and how that, in turn, will affect the course of future events. They seem to have fulfilled the same function as the Romano-Celtic Matronæ, or the Parcae in Roman theology, with particular influence on the fates of the newborn, and sometimes three places were laid for them at the table. There are stories in which they give life-gifts like the good fairies. (Ellis-Davidson,1964).

The well referred to in the Edda lies under one of the roots of the Worldtree, and is called the Well of Wyrd. This is of some significance, for the combination of a subterranean location and a sacred spring are elsewhere also associated with prophecy. The Norns have the task of pouring water from the well onto the roots of the Worldtree, which is being gnawed by the Serpent Nidhogg, in order to renew it. We shall see this association of prophetic women with water and a serpent in the archetypes associated with the oracle at Delphi as well.

Mediterranean Oracles.

In the Classical world, oracles did not “ride circuit” as they did in the north, but rather, were permanently situated in some spot which was at least picturesque, and at best, may have been for some reason conducive to supernatural experiences. Among the Greeks, an oracle “has been defined as the conjunction of an uncanny place and a canny person.” (J.L. Myres, quoted by Fox, p. 204). One element which turns up consistently in the description of these shrines is the presence of water. Here, certainly, we have a possible connection to the feminine, for in the Mediterranean the nymphs, and among the Celts, goddesses, were usually associated with sacred springs.

The Sibyls. For centuries, the Romans made all major decisions by consulting the Sibylline books, a collection of prophecies said to have been given by the Hellespontic Sibyl in the time of Solon or by the Sibyl of Cumae. Legend tells us that she offered the ancient Roman king Tarquin nine books of prophecy. When the king refused to buy, she burned all but three. These he bought (for the original price) and they were kept in a vault beneath the Capitoline temple of Jupiter. When these were destroyed, the Romans collected similar sayings from Sibyls located elsewhere.

The official number of Sibyls varied. Plato knew of only one, but later sources speak of up to twelve. Their prophecies were circulated as those of Nostradamus are today. Eventually oracles from Egyptian, Babylonian, Jewish and even Christian Sibyls were being circulated, and Michaelangelo painted them on the Sistine walls. The Sibyls were portrayed as women living in lonely caves or by inspiring springs, but it is unclear whether any were still active during historic times, or whether their prophecies were transmitted via the visions of others. The most famous was the Sibyl of Erythrae, whose wanderings led her eventually to Cumae. She was said to have lived for nine hundred years.

The Pythia. The ancient oracle whose fame has best survived is of course that of Apollo at Delphi. The classical Greeks believed that before Apollo took possession of the shrine, Gaea and her daughter Themis had spoken prophecies at Pytho, a village nearby. An earlier myth held that Apollo had slain a monstrous python which was threatening his mother, and so acquired the holy place, after which he established the oracle. Note that we have just seen the conjunction of water, prophetic females, and a serpent of ambiguous intentions in the northern mythology. It is possible that writers in newly Christianized Scandinavia were influenced by exposure to European culture, but we may also be seeing here the survival of an ancient archetypal relationship. If Apollo’s cult did not displace that of an oracular goddess at Delphi itself, the myths may reflect a memory of it having done so elsewhere.

Another story held that the the inspirational qualities of Delphi had been discovered by chance by a shepherd, who was overcome by its influence and began to prophesy. Later, Apollo recruited priestesses for the job. Historically, however, the major settlement of Mycenean times was located a little to the southeast, where a temple to Athena Pronaia had been built near the Castalian spring. Apollo moved into the neighborhood, so to speak, without displacing her.

Many stories are told of the Delphic tradition, some of them apparently folklore. There is, for instance, no geological or archaeological evidence for inebriating “fumes” arising from the earth below. What we have in the Greek texts, instead, are references to pneuma, a word which can mean breath or soul, or an atmos entheos, an atmosphere which causes “enthusiasm”, emanations from the earth which affect the psyche rather than the senses.

The ancients themselves debated the source of the inspiration, and suspected that it had something to do with water. This does, in fact, fit with certain theories popular in metaphysical circles regarding the movement of earth energies along underground watercourses. The fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic field are affected by the terrain. The area around Delphi, though not volcanic, is rocky enough to cause such perturbations, and many of the other oracles were located in rugged country and associated with springs and caves. The Chinese geomancers evaluate the power of specific sites according to what they call the “dragon force”, which John Michell equates with this magnetic current and identifies with ley lines. In England, at least, dragon legends are often associated with springs.

I would suggest that the invisible pneuma which inspired the Pythia at Delphi might indeed be an upwelling of the magnetic current of the earth to which the seeress was sensitive. If the dragon, or serpent, image for such a current was as universal as Michell believes, it could account for the legend of the Python at the Delphic site, and the retention of the title of “pythoness” or Pythia for its priestess. It suggests that sensitivity to the “serpent power” of the earth, whether in a particularly powerful location or in general, may play a role in prophecy.

Be that as it may, the vehicle through which the divine information was transmitted was a priestess, called the Pythia. In earlier years she seems to have been a simple country girl. Later, however, the priestesses were recruited from wealthier families and were better educated. The Greek historian Plutarch dedicated a book on Isis and Osiris to one of them, a woman called Clea, and wrote a second work, The Brave Deeds of Women, in her honor.

Prophetic methods. In the shrines of Apollo we also have an analogue of the seidhjallR of Scandinavia. The Pythia at Delphi sat upon a “tripod”, a three legged stool about the height of a bar stool. In Didyma, the priestess sat on something called an axon, which was apparently a vertical cylinder, next to a small sacred spring.

Another element found in both the north and south is song. In the third century, Apollo, speaking through his priestess, informed a questioner that the immortal gods did not need possessions or expensive offerings. What he himself preferred was song, especially when sung just before the delivery of the oracles. Choirs of boys made pilgrimage to Delphi every year to sing hymns of praise to the god. The timing of the singing, just before the oracle was given, suggests that it might have had a function in inspiring the priestess.

We have seen how the volvas of the north delivered their prophecies. An analysis of the practices at Delphi may help us to identify the essential features of the process. One major difference of course is in the setting, in a site originally chosen for its natural impressiveness rather than inside a farmer’s hall. It should be noted, however, that in more temperate parts of Scandinavia, seidh magic was often done outside. The Pythia also seems to have answered only one question at a time. On the other hand, in both cases some kind of preparation was required– for the volva, eating specific kinds of food, and for the Pythia, fasting.

In Scandinavia, the need of the people seems to have been enough to draw forth a response. In Delphi, the willingness of the god to provide inspiration was ascertained by pouring cold water over the sacrificial goat. If the unfortunate animal shivered, oracles would be given. In one instance, when the goat did not shudder and the priests, to please the questioner, forced the Pythia to try to prophesy anyway, she had a kind of hysterical fit, ran about raving and died soon afterward. I would interpret this as a rather extreme example of the damage that can be done to a sensitive individual whose psyche is already wide-open when trance is mishandled.

The normal procedure in Delphi seems to have been for the Pythia to purify and prepare herself by bathing and drinking water from the spring of Kassotis which was brought by a channel to the shrine. At Didyma, another Apolline oracle, questioners made offerings outside the shrine. The Seeress fasted for three days beforehand, went into a deep trance and awaited them inside.

The Delphic priestess burned bay leaves and barley meal on an altar and then ascended her tripod in the inner cave. She wore a wreath of laurel leaves and held a sprig of laurel in her hand. Some sources say that she chewed the leaves as well. Her seat was called a holmos, a hollowed stone set in the ring of the tripod. By the time her questioner arrived, she had been exposed to the influences of the place long enough to pass into a trance state.

According to Plutarch’s account as summarized by Fontenrose,

Apollo moves her to speak, but she speaks with her own voice, and each Pythia according to her native endowments. The god does not speak with the Pythia’s vocal chords and lips: Apollo puts the visions in her mind and a light in her soul that causes her to see the future; and she reveals the visions in her own words. As the sun makes use of the moon in reflecting light, so Apollo makes use of the Pythia in speaking oracles. (p. 206)

It should be noted, however that despite Plutarch, in some of the responses the seeress seems to be relaying the words of, if not actually possessed by, the god. Her mantic performance was mania in its Greek meaning– enthusiasm, inspiration, ecstasy. After such a session, we are told, the Pythia would feel calm and peaceful, as a warrior feels after battle or a corybant after the dance, a normal response to the catharsis of trance.

Oracular responses. At some periods the seeress at Delphi provided her answers in verse, while at others (or from other seeresses) the answers were in prose. The responses seem to have been articulate, although sometimes ambiguous. Sometimes poets attached to the temple would then put them into poetic form. The Pythia was attended by priests, who managed the session and wrote down the answers.

The format of oracles follows a number of patterns. According to Fontenrose’s analysis, the most common is a command “to perform a certain act in order to have success or to avoid misfortune…” (p. 13), or the converse, not to do a certain action. Other forms include clear instructions, especially those concerning the kinds of offerings or worship desired by various gods, or confirmation of a proposed course of action, such as founding a new colony. Another class are “conditioned commands” of the sort familiar from Macbeth; if an impossible or unlikely condition is met, then the questioner should act, or sometimes, will meet his doom. A variation is an instruction to do something when a strange or ambiguously stated event occurs. There are also a large variety of statements about past or future events.

Personal prophecy.

The practice of “incubation” in order to gain insight from dreams was well known in the Mediterranean, where a person with a problem could sleep overnight in the temple of an appropriate deity, such as Aesclepius. The god would send a dream which would then be interpreted by the priests of the shrine. A similar pattern of interpretation occurs in some of the oracle shrines, where the original utterance of the seeress is recast in neat hexameters before being delivered to the questioner.

It should be noted that in the Icelandic sagas both men and women have and interpret prophetic dreams. The usual pattern is for the text to describe the dream as experienced. Then the dreamer begins to process it by expressing it in poetry, after which, he or she spends an hour or two analyzing it with the help of a friend.

Contemporary Oracles.

Perhaps the best known contemporary oracles are the channelers made famous by Shirley MacLaine. In the nineteenth century, the mediums of spiritualist circles seemed to have performed a similar function. In neo-pagan circles, divination has for the most part been practiced via such systems as the Tarot or Runes. However, the reason I was able to write at such length about the Old Norse seeresses is that for the past several years my group, Hrafnar, has been working on recovering the techniques of oracular seidh. This work has served as a model for an oracle in the Greek tradition for the Thiassos Olympikos Californikos as well.

Space permits only a brief reference to our experience here, but we have been able to train a number of seers, both female and male, to respond usefully to questions in a ritual context with fair consistency. Following Norse tradition, the purpose of our seidh rituals is not personal illumination (though I believe the practice does contribute to the growth of those involved), but service to the community. We are beginning to develop our own “circuit” of appearances at local festivals, such as Pantheacon and Ancient Ways. We use songs and a high seat, and a pathworking which seems to help questioners and seers to achieve rapport.

In our experience answers may come as visions which are then interpreted by the questioner, or sometimes as straightforward advice. At times a response given to one querent will answer a question someone else was going to ask. The most useful information seems to be about life choices and relationships, rather than specific facts, such as the winning lottery number. The more emotional intensity in the question, the easier and more profound the answer will be. Sometimes the answer seems to make little sense, on the other hand, we have been told that responses referred to information unavailable to the seer, or were extremely useful, often enough to justify continuing.

Interpreting Oracles.

Like us, the ancients had to find an explanation when prophecies failed to materialize. The neo-Platonic philosopher and mystic Porphyry suggests the following possibilities. First, the answer might have been given by a lesser spirit, especially if the question were a mundane one. (I am reminded of a button I picked up at a book fair which read “Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re smart”). In addition, the transmission of the answer might be interrupted between the gods and the seer by the influence of various earthly forces.

This is a problem which faces us still. In Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft, T.M. Luhrmann, writing from an anthropological perspective, describes the kinds of explanations used to evaluate the success or failure of magical rituals. Magicians learn “…to observe new aspects of events and new patterns in sets of events.” (p. 123)

Failure may be due, not to a problem in the theory, but to impro per performance of part of a rite, or lack of competence by a participant. Successes are remembered, and reinforce belief. In the same way, the ancients used hindsight to reinforce belief in their oracles. Deciding how much to believe presents an interesting problem. Scepticism and detachment can help us avoid self-deception, however there are times when to doubt the magic can cause its failure to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to learn how to use the insights that come from meditation and ritual, and the information that comes from oracles, not credulously, but carefully. Today, as in the past, people seek certainty.

In Africa those who receive instructions from someone possessed by an orisha are advised to “get a second opinion” via another system of divination. This seems like good advice to me. Having left a religion which interprets the Divine Will for its worshippers for one in which I can speak to the Goddess myself, I am not about to turn over the direction of my life to anyone, however inspired. On the other hand, as a priestess, I need to be able to listen to the gods and to my own higher self, and when asked, to help others to do the same. I do believe that humans have the capacity to gain information from the unconscious as well as from the conscious, rational, mind.

In my experience, the utility of divination, whether via some means such as the Tarot or Runes, or oracular, is in presenting information to the questioner in such a way that it will bypass surface resistance and communicate with the unconscious, where true transformation occurs. But it is up to us to decide what to do with the information. We are all responsible for our own spiritual development. We should not allow an oracle to tell us how to run our lives, but rather let what we hear stimulate our own ability to do so.

Seeking the Oracle Within.

Like the ancients, we look for insight and inspiration from the Goddess today. But you don’t have to go to Delphi, or even to Hrafnar, for answers. Information is available to us from the same sources it was for them. What is required is the will, and the willingness, to look within. Find a divination system that works well for you. Develop skill in lucid dreaming– a number of useful books on the subject have been published and should be available in your local metaphysical book store.

Or you can consult the Sibyl.

There are a number of possibile ways to do so: you can make up your own pathworking– visualize a seidh session as described at the beginning of this article and ask your question; seek the temple of the goddess with whom you work most closely and talk to Her; or you may make the journey described below. Look at the narration to familiarize yourself with the images, or you may read the narration onto a tape and listen to it. You can also do this exercise with a partner who writes down what you say. Find a time and place where you can be undisturbed. Sit in a balanced position or lie down comfortably. You may find that a tape of shamanic drumming will help you to focus.

Journey to the Sibyl’s cave.

Sink down and be at ease.
Let the busy mind release, let go the day’s concerns. . . .
One by one your limbs relax.
You feel the solid earth supporting you. . . .
All the small sounds around you contribute to your peace.
Breathe in. . . and out. . . in. . . and out again.

See in your mind’s eye a place outdoors that you know well.
Feel the soil beneath your feet, the touch of air on your skin,
draw in the scent of green things, note what is growing there. . .
As you look around you, you see a path leading away; follow it.
Gradually the land around you changes, grows dry;
you breathe in the aromatic scent of hillsides baked by the sun.
You pass through an a grove of olive trees,
then the ground rises and you leave the lands of men behind.

The country is becoming wild and rocky, but the trail is well-worn,
many have passed this way before.
You hear water, a little stream is trickling down from above.
Oaks shadow the water, and still the path rises.
You pass between two large boulders;
now the trail leads through a cleft in the hills
and you make your way up a narrow gorge, shadowed now.
Ahead grows a copse of bay laurels,

their glossy leaves glinting where they are touched
by the last rays of the sun. Beyond them all is shadow,
deepest where the gorge becomes a cleft in the hill.
The stream is emerging from this cave.
A wind rushes up the gorge, whistling among the stones;
you shiver, but the shadows in the cave attract you.
What mystery lies hid within?
Above the entrance to the cave
words have been carved into the smoothed stone —

“Ye who seek wisdom, enter safely;
ye who seek only your own glory, flee in fear!”

Stop, wash your face and hands in the stream .
Outside the entrance is an altar of cut stone.
Upon it, offerings have been laid;
a bunch of flowers, a cheese, a pouch of coins.
What will you give for wisdom? Think a moment.
The gift you would offer is at your side.

Lay it upon the altar, and pass within.
It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Here the cavern is roomy, an arched curve
partially carved out by human hands,
but the passage beyond it is darker.
And yet that is the way you must go.

Your footsteps echo hollowly.
Reach out and feel your way along the cold stone.

Ahead is another cave, smaller than the first.
An oil lamp glimmers within; there is a strange scent in the air.
At the edge of the circle of light is a shape–
at first you think it too is carven out of stone.
Then it stirs, and draperies flutter.
You realize it is a woman, swathed in veils,
who is awaiting you upon a raised seat of carven stone.
You shiver again, and not entirely from cold.
“Who are you?”

You give her your true name.
“What do you seek to know?”
Now you must ask your question– but ask carefully.
She will not suffer the foolish or disrespectful.
When you have found the right words,
make your request, and await the answer. . . .

* * * * *(allow five minutes here for the answer to come to you)

When the Sibyl has finished speaking, thank her.
Take careful note of what she said,
especially if you have promised something.
What you pledge in the Sibyl’s cave must be performed
or the curse will fall on you.

You leave the cave, blinking as you encounter the light,
and make your way out into the open air once more.
Pause and drink a little from the stream.

Pass down through the gorge;
The last of the light shows you your way.
Leave the hills and go through the olive orchards,
back through the country that becomes the land you know.
Return now to your sacred place and sit down.
Let your weight sink; the ground becomes a chair once more.
Breathe in and out, in and out, sigh and stretch,
open your eyes and return to the world we know.


  • Eirik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas, translated by Gwyn Jones,Oxford University Press,1961
  • H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Pelican, 1964
  • Joseph Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978
  • Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1986
  • T.M.Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, Harvard University Press, 1989
  • John Michell, The New View over Atlantis, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983
  • Oskar Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1956
  • Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1987

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *