Sanctuary of the Greek god Zeus, located at Epirus. Mentioned by Homer, it was the site of an oracle, where messages came through the rustling of leaves or other natural sounds. There was also a large bronze gong that vibrated in the breeze.
Learn more about Dodona with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Dodona (from Doric Greek Δωδώνα, Ionic Greek: Δωδώνη - Dodone) in Epirus in northwestern Greece, was a prehistoric oracle devoted to the Mother Goddess identified at other sites with Rhea or Gaia, but here called Dione and later, in historical times also to the Greek god Zeus. The shrine of Dodona was the oldest Hellenic oracle, according to the fifth-century historian Herodotus and in fact dates to pre-Hellenic times, perhaps as early as the second millennium BCE. Aristotle considered the region to have been the most ancient part of Greece and where the Hellenes originated. Priestesses and priests in the sacred grove interpreted the rustling of the oak (or beech) leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken. Greek oracles are often misconstrued as having predicted the future. The oracle was firstly under control of Thesprotians before it passed into the hands of Molossians. Earliest inscriptions at the site date to ca. 550-500 BCE.
At Dodona, Zeus was worshipped as "Zeus Naios" or "Naos" (god of the spring cf. Naiads)— there was a spring below the oak in the temenos or sanctuary— and "Zeus Bouleus" (Counsellor). Originally an oracle of the Mother Goddess, the oracle was shared by Dione (whose name, like "Zeus," simply means "deity") and Zeus. Many dedicatory inscriptions recovered from the site mention both "Dione" and "Zeus Naios". Elsewhere in Classical Greece, Dione was relegated to a minor role by Classical times, being made into an aspect of Zeus's more usual consort, Hera, but never at Dodona.
When Homer wrote the Iliad (circa 750 BCE), no buildings were present, and the priests slept on the ground with ritually unwashed feet. Not until the fourth century BCE, was a small stone temple to Zeus added to the site. By the time Euripides mentioned Dodona (fragmentary play Melanippe), and Herodotus wrote about the oracle, priestesses had been restored. Though it never eclipsed the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, Dodona gained a reputation far beyond Greece. In Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, a retelling of an older story of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason's ship, the "Argo", had the gift of prophecy, because it contained an oak timber spirited from Dodona.
In the third century BCE, King Pyrrhus grandly rebuilt the Temple of Zeus, and added many other buildings and a festival featuring athletic games, musical contests, and drama enacted in a theatre. A wall was built around the oracle itself and the holy tree, as well as temples to Heracles and Dione.
In 219 BCE, the Aetolians invaded and burned the temple to the ground. Though King Philip V of Macedon rebuilt all the buildings bigger and better than before, and added a stadium for annual games, the oracle at Dodona never fully recovered. In 167 BCE, Dodona was once again destroyed and later rebuilt 31 BCE by Emperor Augustus. By the time the traveller Pausanias visited Dodona in the second century AD, the sacred grove had been reduced to a single oak. Pilgrims still consulted the oracle until CE 391, when Christians cut down the holy tree. Though the surviving town was insignificant, the long-hallowed pagan site must have retained significance, for a Christian Bishop of Dodona attended the Council of Ephesus in CE 431.
Archaeological excavations over more than a century have recovered artifacts as early as the Mycenaean era, many now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, and some in the archaeological museum at nearby Ioannina.
Herodotus follows with what he was told by the prophetesses, called peleiades ("doves") at Dodona:
In the simplest analysis, this was a confirmation of the oracle tradition in Egypt. The element of the dove may be an attempt to account for a folk etymology applied to the archaic name of the sacred women that no longer made sense. Was the pel- element in their name actually connected with "black" or "muddy" root elements in names like "Peleus" or "Pelops"? Is that why the doves were black? Herodotus adds:
Thesprotia, on the coast west of Dodona, would have been available to the sea-going Phoenicians, whom Herodotus' readers would not have expected to have penetrated as far inland as Dodona. Christians will be particularly arrested by the doves as vehicles of divine spirit.