Letter Oracle


Letter oracle is a modern term for minor method of ancient technical divination. First, a random letter is selected, and then a chart associating each letter with an oracular response is consulted. A number of such texts in Greek, where each letter serves as the beginning of a verse in iambic trimeter, survive in inscriptions from Asia Minor that were made in the Roman imperial period.

While a method for the first step (the selection of the letter) is absent form the inscriptions, we can supply one from a medieval Latin text, the so-called Royal Alphabet, also translated below. It directs the reader to open a book at random and find the first letter. In the medieval example, the book is the Latin psalter, but for the Greek oracle, any text in Greek may be used, such as a copy of the Iliad. However, note that this precise method was probably not used at the time the inscriptions were made, as literary manuscripts still most commonly took the form of scrolls.

In the medieval text, the consultation of the psalter is preceded by singing a psalm before an altar, and by analogy to this Christian example as well as (more importantly) other pagan oracles, there can be little doubt that a preliminary offering is also in order before using the Greek letter oracles. Since the verses themselves indicate that they come from Apollo, that offering is most suitably made to him.

Greek letter oracle from Olympus in Lycia (TAM II 947)

(Α) ἅπαντα πράξεις εὐτυχῶς· θεὸς λέγει.

‘You will do everything with good fortune’, says the god (i.e., Apollo).

(Β) βοηθὸν ἕξεις μετὰ Τύχης τὸν Πύθιον.

You will have the Pythian as your helper, with Fortune.

(Γ) γῆ σοι τέλειον καρπὸν ἀποδώσι πόνων.

May the Earth yield the perfected fruit of your labors.

(Δ) δύναμις ἄκαιρος ἐν νόμοισιν ἀσθενές.

Importunate force in the laws is without strength.

(Ε) ἐρᾶς δικαίων ἐγ γάμων ἰδεῖν σποράν.

Having made love in just couplings (‘lawful marriage’), you will see offspring.

(Ζ) ζάλην μεγίστην φεῦγε, μή τι καὶ βλαβῇς.

Avoid the great storm, lest you do some harm.

(Η) ἥλιος ὁρᾷ σε λαμπρός, ὃς τὰ πάντα ὁρᾷ.

The shining Sun, who sees all things, sees you.

(Θ) θεοὺς ἀρωγοὺς τῆς ὁδοῦ ταύτης ἔχεις.

You have the gods as helpers on this path.

(Ι) ἱδρῶτές εἰσιν· πλὴν ἁπάντων περιέσῃ.

There is sweat; still, you will overcome everything.

(Κ) κύμασι μάχεσθαι χαλεπόν· ἀνάμεινον βραχύ.

It is hard to battle the waves; wait a short while!

(Λ) λόγος διελθὼν πάντα σημαίνει καλῶς.

Reason (lógos) going through all things gives a good indication.

(Μ) μοχθεῖν ἀνάνκη· μεταβολὴ δ’ ἔσται καλή.

It is necessary to toil, but there will be a good change.

(Ν) νικηφόρον δώρημα τὸν χρησμὸν στέφει.

A victory-bringing gift crowns this oracle.

(Ξ) ξηρῶν ἀπὸ κλάδων καρπὸν οὐκ ἔσται λαβεῖν.

From dry branches, one will not be able to take fruit.

(Ο) οὐκ ἔστι μὴ σπείραντα θερίσαι κάρπιμα.

One who does not sow cannot reap fruit.

(Π) πολλοὺς ἀγῶνας διανύσας λήψῃ στέφος.

Having completed many struggles, you will seize the garland (of victory).

(Ρ) ῥᾶον διάξεις ἔτι βραχὺν μείνας χρόνον.

You will continue with ease if you wait for a short time.

(Σ) σαφῶς ὁ Φοῖβος ἐννέπει· μεῖνον, φίλε.

Phoebus speaks clearly: ‘Wait, friend!’

(Τ) τῶν νῦν παρουσῶν συμφορῶν ἕξεις λύσιν.

You will have release from your current circumstances.

(Υ) ὑπόσχεσιν τὸ πρᾶγμα γενναίαν ἔχει.

The matter (or ‘business’) has a noble promise.

(Φ) φαύλως τι πράξας μετὰ χρόνον μέμψῃ θεοῖς.

Having done something evil, after a time you will blame the gods.

(Χ) χρυσοῦν ποιήσεις χρησμὸν ἐπιτυχών, φίλε.

You will succeed and turn the oracle into gold, friend.

(Ψ) ψῆφον δικαίαν τήνδε παρὰ θεῶν ἔχεις.

You have this just lot from the gods.

(Ω) ὠμὴν ὀπώραν ἢν λάβῃς, οὐ χρήσιμον.

If you pick unripe fruit, it is without use.

Notes on the text

The text is inscribed in very good spelling in TAM II 947 (= Tituli Asiae Minoris, vol. 2, inscription 947, edited by Ernst Kalinka), except for some confusions between ι and ει. Specifically, the verbal ending -εις is spelled -ις in several cases (perhaps because the i was shortened in pronunciation?), whereas the long i in νικηφόρον is spelled as ει. Further, as in most inscriptions, word breaks, accentuation and capitalization have been introduced by a modern editor. Thus, the line “ἅπαντα πράξεις εὐτυχῶς· θεὸς λέγει.” as given here represents an inscribed text that is closer to “ΑΠΑΝΤΑΠΡΑΞΙΣΕΥΤΥΧΩΣΘΕΟΣΛΕΓΕΙ”.



Variant lines from other versions




Υ: Perhaps lots or pebbles marked with the letters were drawn. (There are also many oracles (manteîa) in many temples (which work) by urns of response ballots, with the temple-keeper looking at the ballot and reading the oracle (khrēsmós) from a book.)

Translation of the medieval Royal Alphabet

If you should wish to know about any matter, you will be able to know in the following manner. First sing some psalm before the first step of an altar, so that God may manifest what you ask. Then, after opening the psalter, clearly understand what you ask in the following manner, using the first letter in it.

A signifies life or power.
B signifies power among the people.
C signifies the death of a man.
D signifies disturbance or death.
E signifies joy or gladness.
F signifies noble blood.
G signifies the murder of someone.
H signifies the murder or death of a woman.
I signifies good life.
K signifies vain strife.
L signifies joy or honor.
M signifies moderate fraud.
N signifies a renewed visit.
O signifies power of life.
P signifies complete health.
Q signifies life and surety.
R signifies being restored again or wounded.
S signifies health of the soul.
T signifies anger or change.
V signifies death.
X signifies meeting a parent.
Y signifies whatever you should wish to be said to you.
Z signifies money or increase.[1]


  1. The text is given in László Sándor Chardonnens, “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books”, in: Modern Philology 110.3 (February 2013), pp. 340—366, here p. 343. Incorporating the emendations proposed there, it runs as follow:
    Si de aliqua re scire volueris hoc modo scire poteris. Canta inprimis aliquem psalmum ad primum altaris gradum. ut deus manifestet quod queris. Postea aperto psalterio in eo tibi per primam litteram aperte cognosce hoc modo quod queris.
    A significat vitam vel potestatem.
    B significat potestatem in populo.
    C significat mortem viri.
    D significat conturbationem vel mortem.
    E significat leticiam vel gaudium.
    F significat nobilem sanguinem.
    G significat unius occisionem.
    H significat femine occisionem vel mortem.
    I significat bonam vitam.
    K significat inanem litem.
    L significat leticiam vel honorem.
    M significat mediocrem dolum.
    N significat revisitationem.
    O significat potestatem vite.
    P significat omnem salutem.
    Q significat vitam et cautelam.
    R significat rursum restitutum vel vulneratum.
    S significat animi salutem.
    T significat iracundiam vel mutationem.
    V significat mortem.
    X significat parentis obviationem.
    Y significat quicquid volueris dicitur tibi.
    Z significat pecuniam vel augmentum.