Monday, July 5, 2010

The Delphic Oracle

Delphi is located on a spur of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Pleistos Valley.
It is 9 miles north of the harbor-city of Kirrha on the Gulf of Corinth.

Originally, Zeus sent out two eagles from the ends of the earth to fly across the world to meet at its center. An Omphalos (Greek for “navel”) stone was used to denote this point. Python, a deific earth-dragon, guarded the center of the earth and the site was originally called Pytho after this serpent. The Omphalos stone, located in the museum at Delphi, has a carving of a knotted net covering its surface and has a hollow center which widens toward its base.
Apollo slew Python and buried her under the Omphalos. The 1581 engraving below, by Virgil Solis for Book 1 of Ovid's Metamorphosos, shows Apollo killing the serpent.
He then remade her home and oracle as his own. The earliest account of the origin of the Delphic oracle (but only one of many different accounts) is given in the Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo from about 580 to 570 BC. It describes how Apollo chose his first priests who were Cretans from Knossos. They were voyaging on their ship when Apollo, in the form of a dolphin, leapt into the ship and had them follow him up to a “place where you will have rich offerings.” Pytho was renamed Delphi after the dolphin (“delphis” in Greek) whose form Apollo took in order to bring the sailors to become priests in his new temple.

The priestess, sybil or oracle at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi was known as the Pythia, named after the rotting serpent’s corpse. Nine times a year, on the seventh day of each month during the nine warmest months of the year, the oracle would undergo purification rites, including fasting, to prepare for communications with Apollo. She would bathe in the Castalian Spring and then drink the holier waters of the Kassotis, which ran closer to the temple. She then descended into the adyton, a room inside the temple beneath the level of the surrounding floor. She sat upon a tripod-legged chair, over a fissure in the earth from which the sacred Pneuma emerged, holding laurel leaves and a dish of Kassotis spring water into which she gazed. Below is an 1891 painting of the oracle by John Collier.
Nearby was the Omphalos flanked by two gold eagles representing the authority of Zeus. Consultants carrying laurel branches approached the temple along the winding upward course of the Sacred Way,
bringing an animal for sacrifice in the forecourt of the temple and a monetary fee. The sacrificial animal, often a goat, was showered with water and observed to ensure it shivered from the hooves upward, an auspicious sign that the oracular reading could proceed. Upon sacrifice, the animal’s organs, particularly the liver, were examined to ensure the signs were favorable. Petitioners drew lots to determine the order of admission, but those who brought larger donations to Apollo secured a higher place in line. Petitioners were interviewed by the priests who sorted out the genuine cases. They had to go through rituals that helped them frame their questions, present their gifts to the oracle and then a procession along the Sacred Way carrying laurel leaves to visit the temple.
Below is an outline of the site.
The petitioner was then led into the temple to visit the adyton and put his question regarding the future to the oracle. Intoxicated by the Pneuma arising from the decomposing body of the serpent, the oracle would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit and provide answers to the questions. The answers, interpreted by male priests, were spoken in verse. The petitioner would then depart. People consulted the Delphic oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. The oracle had great influence throughout the Greek world and was consulted before all major undertakings, such as wars and the founding of colonies.

Plutarch, who was the high priest at Delphi in the late first and early second centuries, stated that the oracular powers appeared to be linked to vapors from the Kassotis spring waters that ran under the temple and emerged again in the adyton. Recent scientific investigations have shown that there was a spring-like pool and a number of fissures which could have provided pathways for ethylene, methane and ethane gas vapors to enter the base of the temple. The temple lies on the intersection of two major fault lines. The bedrock below is made of limestone, a portion of which is bituminous, rich in hydrocarbons. Friction created by earthquakes heated the bituminous layers resulting in vaporization of the hydrocarbons which rose to the surface through fissures in the rock. It appears that the adyton was located below the floor of the temple in a small chamber. The chamber allowed the escaping gas to be contained in close enough quarters to provoke intoxicating effects. Ethylene gas possesses a sweet odor which would be consistent with Plutarch’s statement that “Not often nor regularly, but occasionally and fortuitously, the room in which the seat the god’s consultants is filled with a fragrance and breeze, as if the adyton were sending forth the essences of the sweetest and most expensive perfumes from a spring.” The inhalation of small amounts of ethylene can cause trances and euphoric frenzied states. Those in that state can hear questions and answer them logically, although their tone of voice may be altered and their speech pattern changed. When removed from the area, the person in the trance has no recollection of what happened or what they said. Water samples from the nearby springs have evidence of ethylene, including the Kassotis spring, which originates uphill from the temple and had the highest concentrations. Today those waters have been diverted for use by the modern town of Delphi.

The oracle was probably selected at the death of her predecessor, from among a guild of priestesses of the temple. The women were natives of Delphi and were required to have led a pure life and be of good character. As many as three women served as oracle, with two taking turns in giving prophecy and another kept in reserve. In addition, at least from 200 BC, there were two priests of Apollo who were in charge of the sanctuary. The priests were chosen from among the leading citizens of Delphi and were appointed for life. The priests oversaw the oracle, conducted sacrifices at other festivals of Apollo and had charge of the Pythian games which occurred every four years at Delphi.

From the entrance of the site, continuing up the slope almost to the temple itself, are statues
and treasuries
built by Greek city states to commemorate victories and to thank the oracle for her advice. The offerings were often a tithe or tenth of the spoils of battle. The most impressive is the restored Athenian Treasury, built to commemorate the Athenians’ victory at the Battle of Salamis.
The oracle had advised them to put their faith in their “wooden walls” which they took to mean their navy. Of interest, the oldest written music in the world is found on the walls of the Athenian Treasury. It is a hymn to the sun god Helios. Above each line of the hymn are the markings of the letter of the Greek alphabet that stood for musical tones. The rhythm and tone are not indicated. Of course, Apollo was the god of music as well as the god of inspiration. The Siphnian Treasury was dedicated by the city of Siphnos whose citizens gave a tithe of the yield from their gold mines. As a result of the treasuries, and protection of the Amphictyonic League, Delphi came to function as the bank of Greece.

Some examples of prophecies from the Delphic oracle follow:

In 359 BC, Philip II of Macedon consulted the oracle and was told “With silver spears you may conquer the world.” Philip sought control of silver mines and used them to bribe his way to early victories, playing one Greek state off against the others and isolating enemies by bribes to potential allies. Philip also had a black colt named Bucephalus that no one could ride. The oracle stated that whoever could ride the horse would conquer the world. Philip’s son, Alexander, realized the horse was afraid of its own shadow and used that knowledge to ride the horse. Philip gave the horse to Alexander, who took the horse on his conquest of Asia which resulted in his being known as Alexander the Great.

In 67 AD, the Emperor Nero visited the oracle. He was just 30 years old and had killed his own mother 8 years previously. The oracle told him, “Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!” Nero was angry and had the oracle buried alive and he took over 500 of the best statues from Delphi to Rome. Nero thought he would have a long reign and die at age 73. Instead his reign came to a short end in the year 68, a result of his own suicide after a revolt by Galba, who became the new Caesar and who was age 73 at the time.

In 117 AD, the Emperor Hadrian visited Delphi before reaching his throne. After drinking of the Kassotis, his destiny as Emperor was proclaimed. When he acceded to the throne, he ordered the Kassotis blocked up so no one else could get the same idea in the same way.

In 303 AD, the Emperor Diocletian visited Delphi and asked why the quality of the oracular utterances had declined (from what we’ve learned, perhaps it was Hadrian’s blocking of the Kassotis). The oracle stated that it was a result of Christian influence. This led to Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians and to Christian animosity against the oracle, which eventually led to its destruction.

In 389 AD, Theodosius continued Christian attacks against pagan temples. He eventually ordered all pagan temples to be shut. In 393 AD, the oracle declared: “Tell the king; the fair wrought house has fallen. No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves; The fountains are now silent; the voice is stilled. It is finished.” The last recorded prophesy of the oracle was recorded in 393. The oracle was shut down by Theodosius in 395, ending 800 years of prophesy. Theodosius died later that year. Within 20 years the Western Roman Empire fell to the barbarians.

There were lots of ups and downs for Delphi. Philip of Macedon abused the treasury. In the three Mithridatic Wars between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus, between 88 and 63 BC, many rich offerings were taken from the oracle by the Romans, particularly the Roman Dictator Sulla. An earthquake in 83 BC severely damaged the temple and invading Celtic barbarians then burned the temple. As indicated earlier, Nero killed the oracle and stripped Delphi of its best statuary. The oracle fell into decay and the surrounding area was impoverished. Later Roman emperors helped to restore it. Hadrian offered complete autonomy to the oracle. Barbarian raids during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and removal of statues and other riches by Constantine caused it to decay. It has been postulated that it was the sacking of the treasuries of Delphi led to the eclipse of Greek civilization and the eventual growth of Rome.

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo are from a building completed in 330 BC.
The building was erected on the remains of an earlier temple destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BC. That earlier temple was of 6th century BC origin. That earlier temple was itself erected on a previous 7th century BC temple. The temple had a pattern of columns 6 by 15. Inside was the adyton, the center of the Delphic oracle and seat of Pythia. It survived until 395 when Theodosius destroyed the temple and most of the statues and works of art in the name of Christianity.

The theater was built up the hill from the Temple of Apollo and gave spectators a view of the entire sanctuary.
It was built in the 4th century BC and remodeled several times later. It had 35 rows and could seat 5,000.
The stadium is up the hill beyond the Sacred Way and the theater. It was built in the 5th century BC and altered in later centuries. The last major remodel was in the 2nd century AD when stone seating was built. It could seat 6,500 spectators.
The Pythian Games were held in Apollo’s honor every four years at Delphi to commemorate his victory over Python.

The gymnasium, a half mile away, was a series of buildings used by the youth of Delphi. The pool and baths on the lower floor were said to have magical powers and imparted the ability to communicate with Apollo. Below, the gymnasium as viewed from the road below the Temple of Apollo.
The Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena is a circular building built between 380 and 360 BC. It had 20 Doric columns around 10 Corinthian columns in the interior. It is located about a half mile from Delphi very near the gymnasium. Below, near the Tholos and looking back up at Temple of Apollo and the theater.
Three of the Doric columns have been restored.
The Tholos temple was at the center of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, the gateway to Delphi. Pronaia means “before the temple” and means that her temple is found before the temple of Apollo and those coming via land would have encountered this structure first. The Tholos may be the most photographed building in the Greek world. Greek temples are usually rectangular. Tholos refers to a building that has a round plan and a conical roof. It stood on a circular platform of three steps, three feet high. The exterior was ringed by 20 Doric columns that supported a superstructure divided horizontally into three zones: the lintel, the Doric frieze, and the cornice. A sloping roof covered the space between the colonnade and the cella wall.

Sources: Wikipedia “Apollo,” “Delphi,” “Galba,” “List of oracular statements from Delphi,” “Omphalos,” “Pythia,” and “Python (mythology)”; John R. Hale, professor at the University of Louisville, Exploring the Roots of Religion, Lecture 16, “Apollo Speaks at Klaros,” (The Teaching Company: 2009);;; Janina K. Darling, Architecture of Greece, (Greenwood Publishing Group: 2004), p. 213 to 214 (found at Google books).


  1. VERY interesting post! Thank you!!

  2. I impressed that someone under the influence of ethylene gas could speak in verse. I plan to pipe some into my Literature classroom this fall in order to assist my students.

    I loved reading this--and learned a lot. I've always heard about the Oracles of Delphi, but never really took the time to read about them. Thanks.

  3. I found I didn't have sufficient time to learn about the places we visited before-hand, so I am using the posts as a way of learning about them after the fact. The posting is a systematic way for me to do it. As with my plant posts, I've started to learn much more about ancient Greek temples and how they functioned. I've heard about the oracle at Delphi all my life, but never knew much about it. Very fun to now be able to place it historically and geographically.