The answer of a god or inspired priest to an inquiry respecting the future; the deity giving responses; the place where the deity could be consulted, etc.


The following are famous responses:

(1) When Croesus consulted the Delphic oracle respecting a projected war, he received for answer, “Croesus Halyn penetrans magnum, pervertet opum vim” (When Croesus passes over the river Halys, he will overthrow the strength of an empire). Croesus supposed the oracle meant he would overthrow the enemy's empire, but it was his own that he destroyed.

(2) Pyrrhus, being about to make war against Rome, was told by the oracle: “Aio te, AEacide, Romanos vincere posse” (I say, Pyrrhus, that you the Romans can conquer), which may mean either You, Pyrrhus, can overthrow the Romans, or Pyrrhus, the Romans can overthrow you.

(3) Another prince, consulting the oracle concerning a projected war, received for answer, “Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis” (You shall go shall return never you shall perish by the war), It will be seen that the whole gist of this response depends on the place of the omitted comma; it may be You shall return, you shall never perish in the war, or You shall return never, you shall perish in the war, which latter was the fact.

(4) Philip of Macedon sent to ask the oracle of Delphi if his Persian expedition would prove successful, and received for answer-

The ready victim crowned for death
Before the altar stands.

Philip took it for granted that the “ready victim” was the King of Persia, but it was Philip himself.

(5) When the Greeks sent to Delphi to know if they would succeed against the Persians, they were told-

Seed-time and harvest, weeping sires shall tell
How thousands fought at Salamis and fell.

But whether the Greeks or the Persians were to be “the weeping sires,” deponent stateth not, nor whether the thousands “about to fall” were to be Greeks or Persians. (See Punctuation.)

(6) When Maxentius was about to encounter Constantine, he consulted the guardians of the Sibylline Books as to the fate of the battle, and the prophetess told him, “Illo die hostem Romanorum case periturum,” but whether Maxentius or Constantine was “the enemy of the Roman people” the oracle left undecided.

(7) In the Bible we have a similar equivoke: When Ahab, King of Israel, was about to wage war on the king of Syria, and asked Micaiah if Ramoth-Gilead would fall into his hands, the prophet replied, “Go, for the Lord will deliver the city into the hands of the king” (1 Kings xxii. 15, 35). Ahab thought that he himself was the king referred to, but the city fell into the hands of the king of Syria.

There are scores of punning prophecies equally equivocal.


(Sir). A dogmatical person, one not to be gainsaid. The ancient oracles professed to be the responses of the gods, from which there could be no appeal.

I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips let no dog bark.

Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice, i. 1.

To work the oracle.
To induce another to favour some plan or join in some project.

“They fetched a rattling price through Starlight's working the oracle with those swells.” —Boldrewood: Robbery under Arms, chap. xii.

Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894

More on Oracle from Fact Monster:

  • oracle - oracle oracle, in Greek religion, priest or priestess who imparted the response of a god to a human ...
  • Delphic oracle - Delphic oracle: Delphic oracle: see Delphi, Greece.
  • Sibylline Oracles - Sibylline Oracles: Sibylline Oracles: see Pseudepigrapha.
  • oracle bones - oracle bones oracle bones, bones used for divination by the Chinese during the Shang dynasty ...
  • Delphi - Delphi Delphi , locality in Phocis, Greece, near the foot of the south slope of Mt. ...

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