The Doves of Dodona

Dodona, in the mountains of central Greece is the site of an Oracle, even more ancient and venerable than that at Delphi. According to myth it was established by a priestess from Egypt who was brought. perhaps by Phoenician slavers, to the oak grove of Dodona. In classical times the oracle was held to be sacred to ‘Zeus and Mother Dion’. Dion was sometimes said to be the mother, by Zeus, of Aphrodite. The name, however, simply means Goddess and it is clear that the association with the Mother Goddess is the most ancient. The oracular priestesses at Dodona were themselves known as ‘the Doves’ and were said to interpret the cooing of the doves in the branches of the sacred oak.

The Theatre at Dodona with view of Mount Tomaros Onno Zweers CC by 3,0

The Theatre at Dodona with view of Mount Tomaros
Onno Zweers CC by 3,0


Looking for the “magic that works” here I conclude that the sacred doves were in fact homing pigeons, capable of carrying messages from a distance to keep the Oracle mysteriously well-informed. Good information allows a much better quality of educated guesswork in a prediction. The origins of homing pigeons are somewhat obscure, but it has been suggested that they were first used in Ancient Egypt. Religious sites would be likely places for discovering, as well as breeding to improve, the innate homing tendency of pigeons. They would have often bred pigeons as convenient and cheap, sacrificial livestock. You have only to read Leviticus to see how often a ‘dove’ was considered an appropriate sacrifice in the ancient Near East.

A cross-confirmation of this idea may come from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The prow of the ship Argo, in which Jason sailed, was said to be carved from a branch of sacred oak from Dodona and hence be able to prophecy and give advice to the Argonauts. This seems to suggest that the Argonauts had access to on-going information.  In addition, the list of the crew members of the Argo  contains two “the Sons of the North Wind”who are  said to be able to “understand the language of birds”. This seems an unusually peaceable attribute for  Greek heroes and, moreover, one that is never made use of in the extant stories of the Argonauts’ adventures. Does it perhaps preserve a memory of  interpreting the messages sent through homing pigeons?

Jason boarding the Argo with Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind Public Domain Image

Jason boarding the Argo with Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind
Public Domain Image

Of course, it would be impossible for pigeons to home to a moving target like a ship, For this interpretation to work we have to assume the Argonauts were, in fact, accessing information from a network of shore-based cult sites, communicating by homing pigeon. We need not suppose that the messages sent were necessarily in writing. Simple codes, perhaps involving coloured threads tied to a birds leg, or even the arrival of a bird from a particular place or group could convey useful information.

Take for example the myth of the Clashing Rocks. This relates that. in sailing into the Black Sea, the Argo was in danger from the Clashing Rocks which are found by the headlands, on either side of the narrows of the Bosphorus. These Rocks could move and would dash out from shore, crushing ships between them. The Argonauts, following the advice from the prophetic prow, evaded this hazard by releasing a bird which flew between the rocks and aroused their malevolence, causing them to dash out in an attempt to crush it. The rocks only succeeded in trapping a few tail feathers of the bird and were then inevitably drawn back to shore.  The Argo was able to sail on, in the track of the bird, before the Rocks were ready to clash again.

Other commentators have supposed that the Clashing Rocks represent icebergs which appear in the Black Sea in spring, following the break-up of ice on the Russian rivers. These sometimes get as far as the Bosphorus, where the narrowness of the passage makes them especially hazardous to shipping. Nobody appears to account for the presence of the bird in the story. But ” the Bosphorus is now clear of ice” is exactly the sort of message that could usefully be conveyed by homing pigeon, from a site overlooking the Bosphorus to a site further down the coast. All that is required would be for the Bosphorus site to collect a pigeon from the lower site when the ice started arriving, with the agreement that they would release it to return home when the passage was clear.

It is generally agreed that while the story of the Argonauts focuses on a journey from Greece to the far end of the Black Sea it also contains elements from many other voyages around the Mediterranean. Indeed, it may be possible that the entire cycle of stories that became the myth, originated as sailing directions that emphasised the benefits of being a member or initiate of the cult of Dodona and thus gaining access to their information network.


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