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When Waterhouse exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in 1884, he appended the following description: ‘The Oracle or Teraph was a human head, cured with spices, which was fixed against the wall, and lamps being lit before it and other rites performed, the imagination of diviners was so excited that they supposed that they head a low voice speaking future events’. The priestess motions for silence as she bends forward to catch the mysterious utterances. The setting is probably imaginary, but has an exotic, middle-eastern flavour.

September 2004