Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Green Caterpillars at Dodona

Thomas Thornely, The Green Caterpillar:
O, what did they do at Dodona?
What did the Dodonians do?
(I ask as the ignorant owner
Of oaks not a few),

When the hosts of the green caterpillars
Invaded their sacred domain?
Did they call in a posse of millers,
To grind them like grain,

And bake them for feasts sacrificial,
Or spread them like butter on bread,
Or extract from them oil beneficial,
To the hair of the head?

Were they used on the farms for manuring,
Or for feeding of fowls or of pigs,
Or by doctors and barbers for curing,
And powdering wigs?

Whatever their use or their uses,
When up they had given the ghost,
What we want is the way that reduces
Their number the most.

And, if we're unable to find it,
If no remedy seems to be known,
We must make up our minds not to mind it,
And leave them alone.

But, what did they do at Dodona?
I am sure, if their story is true,
They could give to the oak and his owner,
A wrinkle or two.
The "green caterpillars" are probably the larvae of the winter moth, Operophtera brumata, which have an appetite for oak leaves. On Dodona, see Plato, Phaedrus 275b (tr. H.N. Fowler):
They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth.
J.G. Frazer, commentary on Pausanias 1.17.5, gives more information about the oracle of Zeus at Dodona:
The rustling of the leaves of the sacred oak would seem to have been regarded as the voice of the god, and these mysterious utterances were interpreted by priestesses to the inquirers who came to consult the oracle. See Homer, Od. xiv.327 sq., xix.299 sq.; Stephanus Byzantius and Suidas, s.v. Δωδώνη; Schol. on Homer, Il. xvi.233; Aeschylus, Prometheus, 851. On the oracle of Dodona, see Bouché-Leclerq, Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité, 2. pp. 277-331; and on the sacred oak, see Bötticher, Baumkultus der Hellenen, pp. 111-115. It is said that out of the wood of the talking oak of Dodona was carved a talking image of Athena, which was fixed into the prow of the Argo (Apollodorus, i.9.16). Zeus of Dodona is represented in art, especially on coins, wearing a garland of oak leaves. See Overbeck, Griech. Kunstmythologie, 2. p. 231 sqq.; Fr. Lenormant, in Gazette archéologique, 3 (1877), p. 95 sqq.
More recent works include D.M. Nicol, "The Oracle of Dodona," Greece & Rome 5.2 (Oct. 1958) 128-143, and H.W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus: Dodona, Olympia, Ammon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 1-163.

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