The Oracle Says: Reply Hazy, Please Try Again

No doubt some of you have heard about the ancient twenty-sided dice* that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating from the fourth century BCE, it is clearly marked with Greek letters and some other symbols.

The obvious joke here is to suggest that this is evidence of an ancient cabal of Dungeons and Dragons aficionados (who presumably lived in their mater’s basement—Zing!). However, Chas Clifton has suggested a much more likely reason for the dice: use in divination.

Using dice for divination in antiquity was not uncommon. While I don’t know of any instances where a twenty-sided die was used, Sarah Iles Johnston does mention a “dice oracle” in her book Ancient Greek Divination. This method of divination was actually a public phenomenon; an oracular monument inscribed with a variety of outcomes could be consulted by passers-by based on the result of a dice roll.

Here’s what Johnston has to say about these oracles:

“The system worked in the following way: a statue of Hermes was erected in the marketplace of a town. On the sides of these statues…were inscribed 56 oracles in verse, each of which was associated with a particular combination of numbers that one could obtain by rolling five dice at a time. In front of the statue was a table, on which lay astragaloi (four-sided dice made from sheep’s knucklebones). A passerby would pick up five astragaloi, roll them, note the combination of numbers they displayed and then look up the relevant oracle on the side of Hermes’ statue.” (99)

This is reminiscent of another divinatory tool, the I Ching. While I certainly don’t want to make too much of any cross-cultural comparisons, I do find it interesting that despite there being a fixed amount of outcomes, the resultant ‘divine message’ was completely dependent upon the querent’s roll. The fixed number of outcomes meant that, ultimately, there wouldn’t be any surprises beyond which answer you received. Nevertheless, the number of dice involved and multiplicity of combinations could certainly give the impression that the answer which was received was specific to the question at hand.

Johnson notes that it was ultimately “up to the enquirer” to determine the relevancy of the oracle’s message to the situation at hand. One can only assume that those unhappy with their result went for “best two out of three.”

*Note: Technically, the singular form of dice is die. However common English usage permits the use of dice to be used in both singular and plural forms. And this concludes our grammar lesson of the day!

Johnston, Sarah Iles. Ancient Greek Divination. 2008.

Photo by connordowney.

One thought on “The Oracle Says: Reply Hazy, Please Try Again
  1. Divination is what diviners do. My wife could roll those five dice, tell the querent what they needed to know, and laugh if someone suggested she could read the answer off the side of a statue. Just shows that materialism and humbug were already alive and well in antiquity.

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