Women prophets of the Ancient Mediterranean

Jill MarshallJill Marshall received her PhD in Religion from Emory University. Her research focuses on women’s religious activities in the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly inspired speech, prophecy, divination, prayer, and magic. She is currently working on a book on women’s prophecy in early Christian literature. She has taught at Emory, Wingate University, Memphis Theological Seminary, and Columbia Theological Seminary. In the summer, she travels to Greece, Turkey, and Israel so that she can dig in the dirt, walk around in the archaeological remains of ancient cities, and be just a little bit closer to the people that she studies.

What’s more dangerous than a woman who speaks for God?

In ancient Mediterranean religions, inspired prophecy, especially when voiced by a woman, could be a dangerous process. In Greek traditions, women held the title “prophet” (in Greek, prophêtis or mantis) at the oracular Temples of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma, and the Temple of Zeus at Dodona. Cassandra and the Sibyl, legendary prophets who were not connected to temples but who prophesied when the spirit came to them, loomed large in the collective imagination of the Greeks and Romans. These women prophets were acknowledged and esteemed conduits for the gods’ will, but the men who sought oracular advice often suspected that they were corrupt or mad. Herein lies the danger: it is precarious to ignore the words of a god, yet, in the eyes of men, women’s words were inherently deceptive, frivolous, or worthless.

The subject of oracular predictions, moreover, raised the stakes of the process and increased the danger that the women both posed and endured. Prophecy sanctioned and/or predicted political upheaval and violence. From its earliest literary depiction in Herodotus’s History, the oracle at Delphi addressed questions about conquests, wars, and settlements of foreign lands, and provided divine sanction for violent actions. According to Plutarch, the Sibyl prophesied “the numerous desolations and migrations of Greek cities, the numerous descents of barbarian hordes, and the overthrow of empires” (Pyth. orac. 398D).

This anxiety-filled political situation led to challenges and violence during oracular inquiries or extemporaneous prophecy. In temple-based prophecy, male inquirers sometimes threatened, assaulted, or killed a priestess who refused to prophesy or who gave unfavorable oracles. In Sibylline traditions and legends about Cassandra, violence upon the prophet more often came from the god who inspired her. The prophetic process, therefore, was dangerous on two levels: prophets spoke divine words that foretold precarious situations, and in turn they experienced verbal, judicial, and physical challenges from gods and men.

In one of the earliest literary portrayals of female prophecy, Herodotus depicts the Delphic prophet as one means by which the gods directed human history. She is not mad or raving; rather, she gives clear yet ambiguous oracles and interprets them when asked to do so. The History does not include episodes in which inquirers, priests, or gods violate the prophet. Instead, they test and question her integrity. These challenges emerge from human anxiety over two things: first, the truth and interpretation of oracles about the future, and second, their own roles in dangerous political maneuvers. For instance, in his interactions with the oracle, King Croesus of Lydia first tested several temples, determined that Delphi was a true oracle, and became increasingly confident in the oracles of the Pythia (the female prophet at Delphi) and in his ability to interpret them. When he failed in his campaign against the Persians, he challenged the prophet and asked why she led him astray. She subdued his challenge by correctly interpreting the oracles for him (1.46–91). This anxiety over receiving true prophecy manifests in other early stories in which inquirers are concerned that someone else has bribed the prophet or that she is in cahoots with their enemies in order to trick them (5.63; 5.90; 6.66; cf. Thucydides 5.16). In Herodotus’s account, the inquirers who make these accusations do not use physical force.

In later texts, the anxiety over falsehood and future transforms into violence upon the prophet. For instance, Strabo records an episode at a different temple, Dodona, in which inquirers killed the prophet. When the warring Boeotians and Pelasgians consulted the oracle, the prophet told the Boeotians that “they would prosper if they committed sacrilege.” They suspected that the prophet favored their enemies, so they “seized the woman and threw her upon a burning pile, for they considered that, whether she had acted falsely or not, they were right … since, if she uttered a false oracle, she had her punishment, whereas, if she did not act falsely, they had only obeyed the order of the oracle” (Geography 9.2). The Boeotians’ violence caused the male temple leadership to bring them to trial before the two living priestesses, but the offenders objected to women judging them and requested two men to judge alongside the priestesses. The verdict broke along gender lines: the men voted for acquittal and the women for conviction. The episode shows a struggle between inquirers and temple officials, male and female, over sacrilegious violence and interpretation of oracles.

In an episode recorded by Plutarch, who was a priest at Delphi in the late-first century CE, Alexander the Great and the Delphic temple officials similarly struggled over control of the institution. On a day that the oracle was not functioning, Alexander demanded a consultation, and the priestess refused, citing the law as support. Alexander then dragged her into the temple, which caused her to exclaim, “You are invincible, my son!” He took this statement as his oracle, “the oracle that he wanted from her” (Alex. 14). This narrative demonstrates the ability of the prophet to refuse inquiries, but the inquirer responded with violence so that he could interpret her words as he wished and nullify any danger a negative oracle might introduce.

So far, the aggressors in these stories have been human, driven by their anxieties over false oracles and their own roles in war. In other episodes, the aggressor is divine. Plutarch records an incident at Delphi in which a man forced the prophet to prophesy, and the god Apollo violently possessed her (Def. orac. 438A–C). For Plutarch, who interprets prophecy through a philosophical lens, the point of the story is the necessity of the proper state of body and soul before an oracular session. Disturbances of the prophet’s body “filter into her soul” (Def. orac. 437D). In this case, the sacrifices before the session did not produce the proper results, which caused the Pythia’s reluctance, but the priests forced her into the temple. Her emotional agitation resulted in “harshness of her voice,” erratic movements, and death. Plutarch is clear that this is an unusual case: her inspiration was “misleading, abnormal, and confusing” (438A). Frenzy and erratic responses are not normal, despite the common perception, both ancient and modern, that the prophets experienced “madness” (mania; see Plato, Phaedr. 244A–B). These responses are dangerous because they show that something has gone wrong in the meeting between prophet and god. Divine contact requires caution.

In poetic portrayals of Cassandra, the Sibyl, and the Pythia, authors vividly describe the intense inspiration of the god, which reflects the prophet’s visions of future danger. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Cassandra prophesies the murder of Agamemnon and the downfall of his family. Her prophecy occurs in waves that she cannot control and is visual and agonizing. She sees violent action unfold (1072–1177), and describes her mental state: “The pain! The terrible agony of true prophecy is coming over me again and again, whirling me around and deranging me in the fierce storm of its onset” (1215–1217). An intermission in her prophecy occurs, and she tells how she gained prophetic ability from a sexual encounter with Apollo (1202–1213). Apollo “wrestled” with her and “breathed delight” (1206), but her refusal of him doomed her to be a prophet who would never be believed.

In the Latin epic tradition, Virgil’s Aeneid likewise portrays Cassandra as a victim of violence and disbelief. She was “torn from the sacred depths of Minerva’s shrine, dragged by her hair” (2.504–505). Cassandra is followed by another female “prophet of doom,” Calaeno, who shrieks oracles and instills dread in those who hear her (3.295–312). Finally, when the Sibyl guides Aeneas in the underworld, she experiences uncontrolled, violent inspiration. Visible and audible signs mark her possession:

Suddenly all her features, all her color changes, her braided hair flies loose, and her breast heaves, her heart bursts with frenzy, she seems to rise in height, the ring of her voice no longer human. (6.46–50)

Virgil portrays inspiration as though Apollo and the Sibyl were a rider and horse. She “tries to pitch the great god” but “his bridle exhausts her raving lips” (6.79–80). The god “whips her on in all her frenzy, twisting his spurs below her breast” (6.100–101).

Another Latin poet, Lucan, in his Civil War, owes much to Virgil’s Sibyl in his violent portrayal of a Delphic session. In the dark epic about the foundation of the Roman Empire, the general Appius Claudius is afraid of entering the war, so he consults the oracle at Delphi (5.65–70). She is afraid of entering the shrine, because contact with Apollo is damaging: “the human framework falls apart under the frenzy’s goad and surge, and the beatings of the gods shake their brittle lives” (5.116–20). But Appius forces her into the temple, where the god “mastered her breast and never more completely invaded his priestess’ frame, drove out her former mind, and told the mortal part to leave her breast to him entirely” (5.165–69). She “boils with a mighty fire,” and Apollo “plunges flames into her guts” (5.173–75). She sees a vision of all of time at once, which physically weighs her down (5.177–81). Her initial fear of Apollo was correct: “the beatings of the gods” caused her death. This most violent story about female prophecy fits firmly into Lucan’s view of the Roman civil war: Human violence, rather than divine ordination, established the political situation in which Rome found itself.

In these accounts, the god violently possesses the prophet. She experiences internal physical pain in fire and whips, and God driving her out of her body or weighing her down. Prophecy occurs in uncontrollable cycles, compelled by the god. The danger that she faces reflects the danger of her visions and the nature of the prophetic process. Likewise, the danger that prophets encounter at the hands of men reflects their fear of the future and their discomfort in placing their lives and fortunes in the hands of a woman who could be mad, corrupt, or simply wrong. At stake in depicting prophecy in these violent terms is the questions of who has control over the prophet and her speech within the fear-ridden situation—the god, the men who interpret the oracles, or the prophet herself.



Aeschylus. Oresteia: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. LCL 146. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lucanus, Marcus Annaeus. Civil War, A New Translation. Translated by Susan H. Braund. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Plato. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Phaedrus. Translated by H. N. Fowler. LCL 36. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Plutarch. De Pythiae Oraculis and De Defectu Oraculorum. Translated by F. C. Babbit. Vol. 5 of Moralia. LCL 306. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Plutarch. Alexander. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 7 of Lives. LCL 99. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919.

Strabo. Geography. Translated by H. L. Jones. LCL 196. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006.