Initial Title: Delphi, the Apollonian Land: the Oracle and the Prophesying
Delphi, the ancient pan-Hellenic spiritual and religious centre, still remains a place with great power, a place where fantasy and reality coincide under the protective light of Apollo. The “omphalos”, the navel of the earth and the universe, as the place is called even nowadays, is at 500-700 m. height offering to its visitor a magnificent view of a variety of natural beauties. The site of the Delphic Oracle, whose history lies back in antiquity, was built in this beautiful place within the two huge mountain rocks of the Phaedriades. It is difficult to find out by whom and how the Oracle was created as many researchers believe that it was functioning since the pre-historic times. This idea is reinforced by the procession of the deities who protected the Oracle throughout its long history: Earth, later her daughter Themis, Apollo and eventually Dionysus. With its creation being lost in time, various myths have been created about its beginnings. Therefore, it is quite difficult, even impossible to find out if any of these stories contain any real elements, never mind to decode them.
One of the most well-known creation myths of the Oracle, which is cited by the writer Diodorus Siculus, tells of a goat herder who noticed one day that a strange chasm next to the rocks of Phaedriades emitted some vapors. He noticed also that the goats which approached the chasm were starting to behave strangely. On approaching there himself, he started uttering unintelligible things as he was falling into trance. It was found later that he was foretelling future events. Since then, a priestess, the Pythia settled in the place inaugurating the Delphic Oracle. Another well-known myth refers to the hero Parnassus – he gave his name to the homonymic mountain – who discovered in the area the augury by reading the flying of the birds of the area.
The Delphic Oracle is mentioned to the Homeric Odyssey in Book 8, but there is no particular reference to the way and time of its foundation. Additional information is given in three other texts: the Homeric Hymn to Apollo and the tragedies Eumenides by Aeschylus and Iphigeneia in Taurois by Euripides.
The columns of the Apollo’s temple as they are standing today.
According to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the god built his first sanctuary at Delphi after having previously slayed the serpent-like dragon Python. From his name later derived the names Pytho, Pythia, Pythios etc. In an attempt to purify the place from the beast, Apollo brought there his holy tree, the laurel which used in the construction of his first temple. Apollo was speaking through Pythia who was sitting above the emitting-gas chasm. According to the hymn the first priests at Delphi were Cretans who arrived there on the back of Apollo who took the shape of a dolphin. When they asked the god how they could survive in such a place, far away from the sea, the god answered that they could live by the offerings of the religious people. So, Cretans brought there the worship of Apollo “Delphinios”, an epithet related with dolphins that is probably connected with the name Delphi as well. This myth survived in many festive performances that took place at Delphi during the various festivals, such as the famous Pythian Games, which comprised musical and athletic competitions and took place every four years.
Aeschylus in his tragedy Eumenides gives a different version. The first prophetess at Delphi was the goddess Gaia and later her daughter Themis. The next who took the Oracle under her control was the Titan Phoebe, daughter also of Gaia. She gave it afterwards to Apollo, who took the name Phoebus from her.
Euripides in Iphigeneia in Taurois wrote that Apollo when he was just an infant travelled with his mother Leto from Delos to Mount Parnassus. Upon his arrival, he occupied the Oracle killing the huge beast that was guarding it. Gaia got very angry because her daughter Themis was expelled violently from the Oracle and she started sending prophetic dreams to people in order to devitalize the power of Apollo. The conflict was solved with Zeus’ intervention; he supported Apollo and gave to him full authority over the place.
These examples show very clearly how diverse were the myths about the origins of the Delphic Oracle, the place that would later become the religious center of the ancient Greece.
Pythia is hiding behind a curtain and is giving prophecies chewing
laurel and drinking water from the Kassiotis Spring.
There were many types of prophesying in ancient Greece that were used and were quite popular, like augury, viscera-reading, oneiromancy, sortilege, astrology etc. However, the ancient Greeks were not fatalists. On the contrary, they studied nature and tried to read its signs in order to fully comprehend the present and be able to move on to the future. It would be unfair to judge them based on the contemporary way of thinking since our times are very different. Furthermore, before we move forward and discuss the art of prophesying as it was used at the Delphic Oracle, we should call to attention the useful division that D. Dimopoulos attempted in his book Στο άδυτο των ελληνικών μαντείων [Inside the Adyton of the Greek Oracles]. There are two types of prophesying: the “adroit” and the “inspired by god” prophesying. With the term “adroit prophesying”, Dimopoulos refers to any kind of prophesying that involved the “prophets”, who used to foretell the future by reading the various natural signs. However, this kind of divination is not reliable since the result is fully depended upon the earnestness and the hermeneutic ability of its workers. Whereas the “inspired by god” prophesying refers to the prophecies that were given to the petitioners by the god himself. Usually the god used a particular medium to transfer his message. Such is the case with the Delphic Oracle, where Pythia was Apollo’s medium giving prophecies for him. This second type is the one that elevates human nature. Therefore, it shouldn’t be downgraded to the level of the “adroit prophesying”. It’s not after all random the fact that only “adroit prophesying” has survived and is used nowadays by millions of people, whereas “inspired by god” has been lost with the destruction of the oracles.
It is evident that the giving of prophecies by the oracles was highly regarded by the faithful since they thought that the god himself spoke to them. Pythia and the priests of the temple were merely the instruments of the god. The access to the sanctuary was free to every man who wanted to ask for god’s advice but not to those who simply wanted to attend the ritual out of curiosity. Women were not allowed to enter the adyton. They could whatsoever prepare their requests and send a representative to the temple.
Plutarch cites in Moralia that Pythia delivered oracles once every year, on the 7th of the month Bysios (mid February-mid March), the day of Apollo’s birth. But after the 6th century BC when the faithful started to increase, the Delphic Oracle started prophesying every 7th day of each month, except for the “off-days” when Pythia couldn’t prophesy and the three winter months when Apollo travelled to the Hyperboreans and his brother Dionysus took control of the sacred place.
The procedure that should be followed by the participants was the following: in the beginning, before entering the adyton, petitioners should pay to the priests the “pelano”, which was some kind of sweet, and to bring some animals for the sacrifices that were held before the prophesying. Also, they had to submit to the priests of the temple their questions. Then, petitioners drew lots to determine the order of admission into the adyton. In certain cases, however, some honoured petitioners would take a higher place in line. The purification of Pythia, of the priests and the petitioners in the Castalian Spring played an important part in the whole procedure. Petitioners after having been purified entered the adyton of the sanctuary and stood in front of Pythia. They couldn’t see her as she was standing behind a curtain. She heard the questions of the faithful and gave them the prophecies chewing laurel leaves and drinking water from the Kassiotis Spring. Her prophecies were usually in verse, in dactylic hexameter, although the meter of the prophecy was highly depended on the type of the question, to whom and for what reason it was given. At times Pythia obtained information through casting of lots, especially when the questions required a “yes/no” answer, and when there was no enough time available. The oracle’s speech was usually incomprehensible and full of riddles. That is why the priests were those who should decode her sayings and transfer god’s message to the petitioners.
As we mentioned above, there were some days that Pythia couldn’t prophesy. The priests of the Oracle followed a specific ritual in order to find out if the god wished to answer to the petitioners’ questions: they threw cold water to a goat. If the animal shivered, then Pythia could give prophecies that day. If not, the petitioners were dismissed and asked to come another day. Plutarch, who served also as a priest of the Oracle, cites that one day when the goat didn’t shiver, the priests threw ice water to it in order to accelerate the whole procedure. So, Pythia started prophesying against her and god’s will. Her mouth, however, started uttering inarticulate cries as if she were possessed by a daemon and in an instant she threw herself out of the adyton scaring all the participants. A few days later Pythia died.
A painting by the Honourable John Maler Collier
Pythia, Apollo’s spokesperson
titled as The Priestess of Delphi.
Pythia, despite the common misconception, was not a specific woman but the title that was given to the prophetess of Apollo at the Delphic Oracle. Initially, the first oracles were young, virgin girls who were chosen to dedicate their lives to Apollo. After an incident, when a man who came to ask for a prophecy fell in love with the Pythia and stole her away, the oracles were middle-aged women, about 50 years old, usually married with children. In order to assume their role as the Pythia they had to abandon their home and family and move to a specific facility inside the sanctuary in order to remain immaculate. They wore white clothes and lived by the rules that were imposed to them by the priests. No particular education or any skills of intuition or perceptivity were required for someone to become the Pythia. In the beginning there was only one Pythia. As the years were passing and the fame of the Delphic Oracle grew bigger and bigger, the oracles were usually three.
It is rather difficult to find out more information about these women, the criteria of their selection and the way they managed to communicate with the deity. Although we have found many records of people who either were priests of the temple or visited the Delphic Oracle to ask for the god’s help, the archaeologists haven’t discovered so far any evidence that could enlighten the mystery of the prophesying. Moreover, the archaeological researches raised even bigger questions since the scientists concluded that there is no existing chasm in the area that could have emitted vapors.
The Delphic Oracle and its role in the ancient Greek history
Nowadays this oracular procedure might seem very peculiar. But for the ancient Greeks the oracle’s services were taken for granted and there was nothing to doubt. That is actually why they visited the oracles in streams. Their faith in the power of the Delphic Oracle was such that they consulted it in all major issues, political or personal ones. It was not just the poor and uneducated people that visited the Oracle, but also the kings fled to it or sent their representatives to ask for the deity’s help. Very often the cities that had suffered a massive natural disaster sent delegations of citizens to ask for atonement. In times of crisis, the first thing that Greeks did was to consult the Oracle. However, the most important role that the Oracle played had to do with its actions on the era of the foundation of the colonies between 8th-6th century BC.
Orestes after having killed his mother comes to the Oracle to plea for Apollo’s atonement.
During these centuries Greeks colonized the coasts of Minor Asia, Hellespont and the Black Sea (“Euxeinos Pontos”), South Sicily as far as the coasts of Africa founding hundreds of colonies. Most of these colonies would have a brilliant progress that would alter Hellenism and the rest of the world forever. A large part of this success should be attributed to the Delphic Oracle since, according to the historical evidence, it played a very important role on this colonization.
When the colonists began their journey to occupy new lands which were far away from their homeland, they were fully aware of the great dangers that they would come up against. That is why they needed the help and the blessing of their gods. Since the Delphic Oracle was the ultimate religious center of the ancient times, colonists asked mainly for Apollo’s help. The remaining prophecies prove that Apollo sometimes gave only his consent and blessing whereas some other times he pointed to them which area to colonize or even who the leader of the colonization should be.
Thousands of tourists visit Delphi every year to feel the special energy of that place.
For example, we will cite the prophecy that was given to Perdiccas the 1st by Pythia and refers to the colonization of Aegae (in Greek “aiga” stands for goat), the first Macedonian capital. So, Apollo said to him:
(There is a royal power within a rich land for the
pious sons of Timenos, given by Zeus who is
holding an aegis. Go, however, to the region of
Bottiaea with the numerous flocks. And there,
where you will encounter sleeping silver-horn goats,
white like the snow, in that land sacrifice to the
blissful gods and build the acropolis of the city).
For centuries the Delphic Oracle was the religious center of Hellenism that managed to unite successfully all the Greeks combining harmoniously the logic and the metaphysics at the same time. It managed to stay alive throughout all the centuries of the heyday of the Greek civilization. Even when Hellenism started to decay, the Oracle tried in every possible way to hold on and continue its work. It was only when the old religion died in the hearts of people and christianism took its place that the Oracle closed and Pythia stopped speaking for Apollo. After all, one of the most famous prophecies is the one that was given to the Emperor Julianus who in his effort to revive the ancient Greek faith tried to revive the Oracle as well:
(Tell to the king that the fancy yard is broken.
Phoebus has no room left, no prophesying laurel,
no talking spring. Even the “garrulous” stream ran dry).
* Dimopoulos, D. (2005) Στο άδυτο των ελληνικών μαντείων [Inside the Adyton of the Greek Oracles]. Athens: Ελεύθερις Σκέψις.
* Karadimitriou, A. K. (2002) Το μαντείο των Δελφών: χρησμοδοσία - κείμενα των χρησμών, ανάλυση της χρησμικής γλώσσας [The Delphic Oracle: prophesying – prophecy texts, language text analysis]. Thessaloniki: Ziti.
* Petsas, F. M. (1983) Δελφοί: τα μνημεία και το μουσείο [Delphi: the monuments and the museum]. Athens: Krini.