Pigeon Corp Manuals Reproductions of Signal Pigeon Corp manuals for 1882 to 1951

Historical uses of Homing Pigeons

I have had an interest in the historical uses of homing pigeons for many years.   Historical references on the use of homing pigeons are abundant but precise data seems much harder to come by the further back in history one looks.  I have found numerous references that state that homing pigeons were used in antiquity by many civilizations but specific references are had to find. The further back in time I looked the more cryptic the references to the use of homing pigeons become.

According to fable, Zeus gave his daughter Thebe two black pigeons endowed with the gift of human speech. Herodotus (Book II 54-58) has this to say about the origin of the Oracle at Dodona: "The priests of Ammon of (Egyptian) Thebes told me that two Priestesses were carried away from  that country by Phoenicians, who, as they heard, sold one in Libya and the other in Greece, and these two women established the first oracles in either place. When I asked how they knew this, they said that the Egyptians has searched diligently for these two women, but in vain, and afterward they had  learnt what they now told me. This account I had from the priests at Thebes; but the prophetesses at Dodona say that two black pigeons flew from Thebes of Egypt, one to Libya an the other to Dodona. The second  perched on a beech-tree, and uttered human speech admonishing the people of the place to set up an oracle of Zeus; and they, believing it to be a divine revelation, obeyed.

    It is suggested that these oracle centers were based on the paranormal abilities of the oracles.  Even those who accept the reality of paranormal abilities admit that they are highly unpredictable. This is not to say that oracles never gave advice or utterances on the basis of genuine inspiration. 

    This thinly disguise story involving “talking” doves flying between the Egyptian oracle center of Thebes and those at Dodona, in Greece, and Siwa, in Libya. This case is based on circumstantial details, as it would have to be, since the oracle centers would have guarded their secret very carefully.  The oracle centers would have concealed the fact that they were using homing pigeons so that they could maintain their credibility with the public.

    When there are several widely divergent explanations for a reference it seems that the simplest explanation is most like the correct one. The simplest explanation is that the priestesses were using homing pigeons to send and receive information between Thebes, Egypt and Dodona, Greece. The Phoenician were involved in the transportation of both  priestesses and pigeons between the oracle center at Dodona and the oracle center at Thebes.

     If you want to conceal something, the best way to hid it is call it something else and to hide it out in the open. If you have almost unlimited power, wealth and privileged knowledge and you want to remain anonymous, the best cover story would be to pass yourself off  as ‘The Gods’. ‘The Gods’ controlled the oracle centers and may have been a secret trade cartel or wealthy family with access to vast amounts of privileged information. 

    In some cases, however, they gave quite specific information about remote circumstances that in the normal course of affairs they could not have known about. King Croesus of Lydia (650 – 546 B.B.) conducted the first known state-sponsored experiment to investigate claims of the paranormal.  Croesus set up what he thought would be a conclusive test of the Delphic Oracle’s power.  He sent his messengers to Delphi with instructions that, on the hundredth day after setting off, they were to ask the oracle what the king Croesus of Lydia was doing that day, note the response and return home.  On the appointed day Croesus performed a deliberately pointless and unlikely task, he boiled a tortoise and a lamb together in a bronze caldron.  He was most impressed when his messengers returned from Delphi with the following lines:

            The smell has come to me of a hard-shell tortoise

            Boiling and bubbling with the lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot:

            The caldron underneath is of bronze, and of bronze the lid.


    How could the oracle at Delphi know what Croesus was doing that day in Lydia some 350 miles away? Did the priest running the oracles have some secret method  by which they could rapidly obtain information over long distances?  This is the theory proposed by Robert Temple, a historian of science who has made a penetrating study of ancient oracles and their methods:  “I believe that the oracles were fed with information about important events, such as the outcomes of battles, by carrier pigeon.  Such news would then be announced as prophecies, sometimes on the very days of the events.  Some days or even weeks later, when human messengers were able to arrive, the “news” they brought confirmed the ‘prophecies’.

           Temple’s pigeon post theory could well explain the Croesus case.  An agent of the Delphic Oracle could have reported Croesus’s experiment by pigeon post.  A good racing pigeon can achieve speeds of over ninety miles per hour, which means it could have flown from Croesus’s court to Delphi in seven hours or so, and certainly within the day allotted for the experiment.  It was well worth it for the oracle to go to such efforts – Herodotus provides a long list of the gifts that Croesus lavished on the successful oracle, including his wife’s jewelry, some solid gold statues and six tons of gold bullion,