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The Oracle at Delphi

The oracle at Delphi is a figure of great historical importance that was, and still is, shrouded in mystery.  She spoke for the god Apollo and answered questions for the Greeks and foreign inquirers about colonization, religion, and power.  By her statements Delphi was made a wealthy and powerful city-state.  The oracle was at the height of power around 1600 B.C. when Greece was colonizing the Mediterranean and Black Seas (Hale), but was stationed in Delphi from 1400 B.C. to 381 A.D.(Roach).  Despite her long tenure it is still debated today how she received the words from Apollo, weather by hallucination or suggestion.

Temple of Apollo
The Delphic Orcle. Kylix by the Kodros painter, c. 440-430 BCE.
From the Collection of Joan Cadden.

The history of an oracle at Delphi existed long before Apollo came there.  According to Diodorus Siculus the first oracle appeared to a shepherd.  The shepherd approached a chasm and as he neared he noticed his goats acting strangely.  When he got close to the chasm he was affected with divine frenzy and began to tell of future events.  Word spread and others began to visit the oracle of the Earth to divine their own futures.  Unfortunately too many people fell into the chasm and it was decided that only one person would be the prophet.  It would be a woman and she would sit upon a tripod so as to not fall into the chasm (Oppe, 218).  Later stories in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo tell how the site was conquered by Apollo.  The Earth mother Gaia kept a holy serpent at Delphi known as Python.  Apollo slays Python and keeps the oracle for himself to speak to mortals.  Hence, the oracle at Delphi is known as Pythia in honor of the killing of Python (Littleton, 77). Also, unlike tradition where the gender of the priestess or priest is the same as the divinity they served, the oracle was female because she originally served Gaia (Lloyd-Jones, 61).  Once Apollo secured the oracle a temple was built.

polygonal wall illustration

According to myth there were five temples to Apollo, only two of the five exist in historic record.  The first temple was a hut of laurel branches, the second was built by bees of wax and feathers and eventually sent by Apollo to the land of Hyperboreans, the third was of bronze and was either burned or swallowed by the earth in an earthquake.  The fourth temple was built by Trophonios and Agamedes, respected architects, and was burned in 548 B.C..  The fifth temple was also damaged by an earthquake in 373 B.C. and took fifty years to rebuild, by which time the Pythia had lost power (Sourvino-Inwood, 231).  Over the entrances were inscribed three sayings “Nothing in Excess”, “Know Thyself”, and “Go bail and ruin is at hand” that all would have seen and thoughtfully considered before entering the temple (Lloyd-Jones, 65).  It is known that the temple was built upon a spring that was used for purification by the oracle and her attending priests.  Plutarch, a priest to the oracle, described the vapors from the spring as “sweetest and most expensive perfumes” (Littleton, 77).  It was these perfumes that made the oracle ready to speak the words of Apollo.

Inquiries could only be made of Apollo once a year on the seventh day of the Greek month of Bysios-Apollo’s birthday.  However according to Plutarch in a passage from Quaestiones Graecae this was eventually changed to the seventh day of each month except the winter months when Apollo did not reside in Delphi.  The change from yearly inquires to monthly was made no later than 480 B.C..  Obviously many people wanted to consult the oracle.  So many that Plutarch describes times of there being three oracles on hand, two that worked in shifts and a third in case one wished a reprieve.  To organize the people and communities that wished to see the oracle on the given day precedence was given.  The city of Delphi always received first precedence and bequeathed second place to a city of their choosing.  Those without precedence drew lots for place.  Unfortunately, those at the end of the line may not have gotten a chance to see the oracle because of the setting sun and would then have to wait until the next month to try again (Parke, 19-22). 

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Often the Pythia was asked about colonization.  If land was gained because of prophesy by the oracle it was believed that the oracle had some possession of the land and legitimized the conquest, thus increasing the stature of Delphi even more.  The oracle was also asked frequently about introducing religion to the new colonies.  She would often respond with what gods would be proper to worship there.  Her answers could be direct, conditional on some particular thing, or entirely ambiguous.  The more direct the answer given the more legitimate the colony was considered to be (Pease 3-18).

Before the Pythia could be questioned she had to ritually prepare herself.  Much of the purification rites involve laurel as it is the tree of Apollo and associated with divination.  The Pythia would chew laurel leaves and bay leaves, drink from the sacred spring and wear a crown of laurel while sitting on a tripod adorned with laurel over a fissure in the cellar of the temple (Sourvinou-Inwood, 233).  Vapors rose from the fissure and caused the Pythia to go into a trance like state.  When she was ready inquirers would be led in by a priest who would ask the question.  The oracle would respond and the priests would interpret the answers for the visitor (Oppe, 215). 

Any type of woman could be chosen to be an oracle.  Education, marital status, wealth, and age were of no consideration.  Women were chosen for their aptitude to speak for the god.  However, if a woman was married she would give up all family duties while stationed as the oracle (Hale).  Similarly, despite the precedence system, any person could consult the oracle as long as they made an offering to Apollo according to their means (Parke, 22).

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The reasoning for the Pythia’s riddled answers and the nature of the vapors rising from the floor of the temple has been richly debated in the twentieth century.  Early research believed there to be no vapors or chasms below the temple, despite descriptions in ancient texts.  New research shows that there are two definite fault lines intersecting below the temple.  The Delphic Fault runs east to west and the Kerna Fault runs north and south.  Analysis of the hydrocarbon gases in the spring water near the temple are shown to contain ethylene which is sweet smelling and if rising into an enclosed chamber would have been potent enough to cause a trance state (Roach).  Today the concentration of gasses is weaker because of the absence of seismic activity to push the gasses to the surface.  It is also believed that the earthquake that damaged the temple in 373B.C. closed the fissures that were releasing the gasses.  The oracle’s last response in 362B.C. states that “the temple has fallen” and as Christianity gained power she states that it was interrupting the flow of divine power from Apollo (Hale).  It is accepted today that the Pythia lost power not only because of the rise of Christianity, but also because she lacked the hallucinogens necessary to prophesy.

Jesse Nevins, Coastal Carolina University