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The Oracle of Delphi




HELLO! I am finally sitting down to write about my travels to Hellas, or Greece. I am happy to share with you my experience and pictures! First, we will begin at Delphi!


In the fall of 2023 I had the good fortune of traveling back home to Greece. I grew up there and then when my parents were stationed back in the USA we had to move. It had been years since I had been there. As a child, I traveled to the Acropolis many times as my parents were stationed in Athens for 6 years. I grew up learning ancient mythology of the Olympians and the Titans, of Athena, and the rest of the goddesses. Many years later I went back (last year) and it was magical,  more than I could have asked for. 

I woke up early to join a group of Americans and people from the UK to jump on a cold bus to visit Delphi, something I had been desiring to see especially since I had started working more closely with the goddesses. The drive was 2 hours long with small pit stops to grab a coffee and pastry on the way. As the driver drove across the countryside I thought about the lengthy pilgrimages taken by officials, dignitaries, and emissaries to meet the Pythia, to find the answers to questions sent by kings. I knew how powerful the Pythia was - she decided the fates of nations and I was anxious to get there. 


Temple of Apollo, photo taken by me, the author.

Situated within the slopes of Mount Parnassus, was the religious sanctuary dedicated to the god Apollo, the home of the most famous Oracle, or seer, of the ancient world, and the meeting place of games and festivities for the Greek world. 



The site was crowded that day. Many tour buses lined the entrance and excited tourists pushed through the lines, eager to climb to the temple of Apollo. I knew I was called to this place, Athena told me so. 

Before reaching the site, the driver and tour guide informed us that due to the rains and flooding, one area would be off limits during the tour. The area - the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia.  I was devastated but understood. Athena shared that this visitation was important and she was glad I traveled there. But I could not visit her sanctuary. I raised my phone to zoom into her sanctuary as close as  I could. 




The Tholos (circular temple part of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia) Photo taken by Author


The lovely tour guide took us over to the Omphalos, or the “holy stone at Delphi” or “naval of Gaea”that marks the center of the universe. The story goes that in the eyes of the ancient Greeks, Delphi was the meeting point of two eagles released by Zeus, one to the East and one in the West.


Omphalos, Photo taken by Author


Although I didn’t have the chance to visit the sanctuary of Athena Pronoia, I felt her presence as I approached the temple of Apollo. What was the history of this temple? I knew the Pythia spent centuries here prophesying for many people. According to legend, “a huge serpent, named Python, guarded the spot before it was slain by the infant god Apollo. When Apollo’s arrows pierced the serpent, its body fell into a fissure and great fumes arose from the crevice as its carcass rotted. All those who stood over the gaping fissure fell into sudden, often violent, trances. In this state, it was believed that Apollo would possess the person and fill them with divine presence" (Barnes-Brown 2018). 


Athena, watching me mesmerized and awe-struck that I was actually standing where the Pythia once sat near her tripod, asked me to make a wish and I did. She also informed me that “there’s a priest here lingering about. Don’t worry, he is a good one…” she said. I laughed. I knew spirits attached themselves to places sometimes, but it was curious that an ancient priest was still there; I wondered how many people he watched, did he say anything to them? Could they hear him? She told me he was curious about me and he could see the gifts I had - I didn’t expect to hear that but he was “impressed…”


Historical Information: 

In ancient Greece, oracular consultation was commonplace and occurred at various sites and sanctuaries across Greece. There were oracles at Dodona and Olympia, on the island of Delos, and as far as Didyma in Asia Minor (Hayward 2020). For more than 1,100 years they were the most authoritative soothsayers in Greece (Hulsman 2018). The Oracle at Delphi in particular is the most important oracle in Greece dating back to 1400 BC and lasting until 390 AD when the Christians eradicated this practice. The temple of Delphi was located on the southwestern slopes of Mount Parnassus. The oracle herself was a priestess of Apollo who was known as the Pythia; she acted as an intermediary between the god Apollo and the citizens. In the innermost part of the Temple of Apollo, the priestess sat on a three-legged tripod, inhaled vapors that rose from a chasm in the floor, clasped laurel reeds in one hand and a bowl of spring water in the other, and went into a trance to receive answers to questions from the god Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy. The prophecies of the Pythian priestess were often described as frantic and frenzied and at times needed to be translated by the priests.


Many Pythias served as an oracle at Delphi over the centuries. The Pythia had to be a Delphian woman from a respected family who was willing to serve in this position as a lifelong vocation. She was educated in geography, history, politics, and philosophy (Hayward 2020).  However, during later periods, the Pythian priestess was sometimes a peasant or poor or old and sometimes uneducated and illiterate. The Pythian priestess lived in a house at the sanctuary.  Along with other priestesses in ancient Greece, the Pythian priestess was widely respected and enjoyed liberties associated with their position; they were afforded the right to own property, a salary and housing, and freedom from taxation. 


The oracle was only available for consultation on one day of each month; three months of the winter season she did not provide any consultations. Nine days a year the oracle was available to communicate with Apollo, but only if Apollo had provided consent. Consent was determined by a specific ritual wherein cold water was sprinkled on a sacrificial goat. If the goat shuddered, then Apollo agreed to the oracular consultation (Hulsman 2018). On the day of the consultation, the Pythian priestess would bathe in the Castilian Spring, drink the holy water of Cassotis, and then proceed to the temple to participate in burning a sacrifice to Apollo which contained laurel leaves and barley meal (Barnes-Brown 2018)

Oracular consultants, or those who sought counsel from all over the ancient world, journeyed to Delphi, along the slope of Mount Parnassus to visit the oracle for advice. Consultants ranged from delegates dispensed by kings who requested insight about politics and war to the founding of colonies, to personal questions regarding marriage and job prospects (Claus 2023). Many oracular consultants would travel for days or weeks to reach Delphi. Once they arrived, they “underwent an intense grilling from the priests, who would determine the genuine cases and instruct them the correct way to frame their questions” (Barnes-Brown 2023). Once approved, they would have to undergo a variety of processes, such as carrying a laurel wreath to the temple offering a monetary donation, as well as offering  animals for sacrificial purposes, was to be provided (Barnes-Brown 2023). Once the animal had been sacrificed, its liver was examined to ensure the signs were seen as favorable; if favorable, it was burned outside of the altar of Chios, where the rising smoke was a signal that the oracle was open. If unfavorable, the consultant could be sent home (Hulsman 2018). 



The Siphnian Treasury, Photo Taken by Author


The oracle was visited by foreign dignitaries, leaders, and kings who traveled there for a chance to ask the oracle a question. The prophecies of the Pythia held significant influence, “deciding the fate of war and peace, and of life and death” (Britannica 2022). According to Alice Barnes-Brown, “no important decision was made without her consultation, and so, for nearly a thousand years, the position of perhaps the greatest political and social influence in the ancient world was occupied by a woman” (Barnes-Brown 2018). 


During the Roman Empire, the oracle of Delphi was still consulted  but no longer held the same prestige. Julian “the Apostate” (361–363 c.e.) was the last pagan emperor to send an emissary to the Delphic oracle. The last recorded visit was documented and reads as follows: 


“Tell the king, the cunningly-built hall has fallen in the dust, Phoebus (Apollo) no longer has a hut, a prophetic laurel, or a speaking stream. Even the talkative water has ceased to exist.


The Theater and the Pythian Games

The theater is  well-preserved, dating to the 4th century B.C. Eumenes II of Pergamon restored it in the 2nd century, as did the Romans later. It was used for musical and theatrical portions of the Pythian Games and for meetings of Delphian citizens. Thirty-five rows provided seats for 5000 spectators as well as an excellent view overlooking the Temple of Apollo.


The Pythian Theater, Photo taken by Author


The Pythian Games were one of the four Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece, a forerunner of the modern Olympic Games, held every four years at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. They were held in honor of Apollo two years after (and two years before) each Olympic Games, and between each Nemean and Isthmian Games.


Archaeological Museum of Delphi

Archaeologists have uncovered numerous artifacts at Delphi including pottery and bronze, tripods, votive offerings, and bronze figurines. I recommend spending time at the museum to witness some of histories most valued treasures. These include the kouroi of Delphi, male statues known as Cleobis and Biton; they were produced at Argos between the 5th and 6th century BC. 



Kouroi of Delphi, Cleobis and Biton, photo taken by author. 


In Room 5 of the museum you’ll find the Sphinx of Naxos (a lion with the face of a female) and the caryatid of the Siphnian treasury. While looking at the caryatid, I couldn't help wonder if these were precursors to the caryatids on the Erecthion on the Acropolis of Athens dedicated to Athena.  


Sphinx of Naxos, Photo taken by Author




Caryatid of Siphnian Treasury, Photo taken by Author



Lastly in Room is the famous Charioteer of Delphi, or the Heniokhos, dates to around 465 BC. This statue is impeccable! My breath was simply taken away when I saw the ornate details and the quality of this bronze statue. The statue was commissioned to commemorate the victory of the tyrant Polyzalusa of Gela, a Greek colony in Sicily, and his chariot in the Pythian Games of 470 BC.


The Charioteer of Delphi, Photo taken by author


I hope you’ve enjoyed this very small glimpse of Greece from my travels. I cannot wait to return soon.


Sources:

  1. "The Oracle of Delphi: How the ancient Greeks relied on One Woman's Divine Visions" by Alice Barnes-Brown. June 2018. https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/ancient/oracle-of-delphi/

  2. "The Ancient Oracle of Delphi, Greece." The Greek Reporter. By Patricia Clause 2023. https://greekreporter.com/2023/08/27/ancient-greek-oracle-delphi/

  3. "Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants." Aeon. John Hulsman 2018. https://aeon.co/ideas/delphic-priestesses-the-worlds-first-political-risk-consultants

  4. :Discover the belief system on the prophetic vision of Oracle of Delphi, the priestess of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2023. https://www.britannica.com/video/180008/oracle-Delphi

  5. "Oracle of Delphi: Why Was It So Important To Ancient Greeks?" The Collector. Laura Hayward. 2020. https://www.thecollector.com/oracle-of-delphi/

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