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The Oracle of Delphi in Ancient Greece

Updated on March 2, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Delphi Oracle

The town of Delphi today is only a small one, with a population of about 26,000; the modern town though, sits adjacent to one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites, and every year thousands of tourists descend on the town so that they can visit the remains of temples and treasure houses. For in antiquity, Delphi was arguably the most important religious site in the Ancient World, despite being situated part way up Mount Parnassus.

So why was Delphi so important? In antiquity, Delphi was home to the Sanctuary of Apollo, and within the sanctuary resided the Oracle of Delphi.

The Pythia - the Oracle at Delphi

John Collier (1850–1934) PD-art-100
John Collier (1850–1934) PD-art-100 | Source

What were Oracles?

The term oracle can be used to define both the shrine associated with the worship of a prophetic deity, and also the priest or priestess who recited the prophecy.

The most important oracular shrine was said to be the Oracle at Pythia, but other important ones were found in the Dodona forest, and at Didyma. Other oracular shrines dedicated to Apollo were also found at Cronith, Bassae, Delos and Aegina.

The term Oracle is often used interchangeably with Sibyl; although the latter term is one more closely associated with Roman religious practices. There were 10 Sibyls, but these priestesses were not necessarily associated with an oracular shrine, and indeed, the Delphic Sibyl was noted for not being the same as the Pythia.

The Archaeolgical Evidence at the Delphi

The remnants of the Delphi complex have provided archaeologists with evidence of an Oracle being present at Delphi as early as the eighth century BC; the evidence telling of the worship of Apollo, and tributes made to the oracle. There is however, some circumstantial evidence to suggest that there was an earlier oracle on the site in the service of Gaia from as early as the fourteenth century BC.

In later antiquity written records were made about the Delphic Oracle, and so some of the predictions by the Oracle have been recorded.

The Oracle of Delphi Archaeological Site

F. Harbin CC-BY-3.0
F. Harbin CC-BY-3.0 | Source

The Mythology of the Oracle of Delphi

To the Ancient Greeks, Delphi was the centre of the whole world, and was referred to as Gaia’s naval.

One story was told of how Zeus located the middle of the earth by releasing eagles from opposite ends of the earth, and where they met was that point.

The stories of Ancient Greece tell of a series of Oracle sites to be found at Delphi, with the first dedicated to Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Gaia would then pass on ownership for the site to the goddess Themis, and then it would be passed on to Phoebe. The passing of ownership to Apollo though, is the most famous mythological story of the Oracle of Delphi.

Hera had employed the offspring of Gaia, the Python, to harass Leto, the mistress of Zeus, whilst she was pregnant. The Python though, would be unable to prevent Leto giving birth to Apollo and Artemis, and so Apollo would track down the creature that had harassed his mother.

Apollo discovered the Python at Delphi, and shooting his bow and arrows, the Greek god would slay the beast. The body of the Python would fall into the fissure of the earth, and its decomposing body would then release fumes that would intoxicate the priestess.

Apollo would subsequently take over the running of the religious site, and the Oracle was subsequently said to recite the words of Apollo; the Oracle being known as the Pythia in honour of Apollo’s victory.

The Oracle at Delphi would appear in many ancient stories, with mythological figures, including Cadmus and Deucalion, consulting the priestess about future plans.

The Oracle of Delphi in a Trance

Heinrich Leutemann PD-life-100
Heinrich Leutemann PD-life-100 | Source

The Treasury of Athens at Delphi

Smoddy CC-BY-SA-3.0
Smoddy CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

The Oracle at Delphi in Antiquity

Many historical figures would also consult the Delphic Oracle, although the statements that came forth were normally answers to questions, rather than prophecies.

From the eighth century BC, a female oracle would perch on a bronze tripod, and there visions were said to come to her. One belief being, that the visions were the result of breathing in hydrocarbon gases emitted from a fissure in the earth where the Pythia sat. The unintelligible ramblings of the Pythia would then be deciphered by others to give answers to questions.

The earliest written records show how all of the most important decisions were run by the Oracle, and colonies were not created nor war declared before the Pythia gave indication of ascent.

The Oracle at Delphi though could only be consulted on certain days of the year, normally on the warmest; and as a result the Oracle might only be available for nine days a year. This though meant that envoys to the most important people from Greece, Rome, Egypt and Lydia would queue up to speak to her. Each envoy would also bring a tribute to the Oracle, and so Delphi soon became one of the richest settlements in the ancient world.

Probably the most famous consultation took place between the Lydian king, Croesus, and the Oracle; the meeting taking place in the sixth century BC. The question asked by Croesus, was whether he should go to war with King Cyrus of Persia.

The response from the Oracle was reported to be that an attack would lead to the destruction of a great kingdom. So Croesus attacked the Persians, and was promptly lost; the kingdom of Lydia was destroyed. The Oracle’s prediction was correct, but Croesus had misinterpreted it.

The wealth of Delphi saw it ransacked several times, sometimes by barbarians, but also by Roman emperors. Rome would have a long association with the Oracle at Delphi, with the early kings to the last emperors consulting the Pythia.

Eventually the importance of Delphi would end, and in 395AD Emperor Theodosius I ordered that all pagan sanctuaries and temples be abandoned; and so Delphi would quickly die.

With the end came the demise of a settlement and sanctuary system that had been central to Mediterranean civilisation for over a 1000 years.

Alexander Consults the Oracle at Delphi

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805) PD-art-100
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805) PD-art-100 | Source

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