Modern Delphi is situated immediately west of the well-known archaeological site and hence is a popular tourist destination. It is on a major highway linking Amfissa city along with Itea and Arachova village. There are many hotels and guest houses in the town, and many taverns and bars. The main streets are narrow, and often one-way. The E4 European long distance path passes through the east end of the town. In addition to the archaeological interest, Delphi attracts tourists visiting the Parnassus Ski Center and the popular coastal towns of the region, like Galaxidi.
In the Middle Ages a town called Kastri was built on the archaeological site. The residents had used the marble columns and structures as support beams and roofs for their improvised houses, a usual way of rebuilding towns that were partially or totally destroyed, especially after the earthquake in 1580, which demolished several towns in Phocis.
In 1893 archaeologists from the École Française d'Athènes finally located the actual site of ancient Delphi and the village was moved to a new location, west of the site of the temples.
The city of Amfissa is the seat of the municipal unit of Delphi. Chrisso, Itea, Galaxidi belong also to the same municipal unit.
DELPHI, The Archaeological Site
Delphi (/ˈdɛlfaɪ/ or /ˈdɛlfi/; Greek: Δελφοί, [ðelˈfi]) is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis. In myths dating to the classical period of Ancient Greece (510-323 BC), the site of Delphi was believed to be determined by Zeus when he sought to find the centre of his "Grandmother Earth" (Ge, Gaea, or Gaia). He sent two eagles flying from the eastern and western extremities, and the path of the eagles crossed over Delphi where the omphalos, or navel of Gaia was found.
Earlier myths include traditions that Pythia, or the Delphic oracle, already was the site of an important oracle in the pre-classical Greek world (as early as 1400 BC) and, rededicated from about 800 BCE, when it served as the major site during classical times for the worship of the god Apollo. Apollo was said to have slain Python, "a dragon" who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. "Python" (derived from the verb πύθω (pythō), "to rot") is claimed by some to be the original name of the site in recognition of Python which Apollo defeated. The Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo recalled that the ancient name of this site had been Krisa. Others relate that it was named Pytho and that Pythia, the priestess serving as the oracle, was chosen from their ranks by a group of priestesses who officiated at the temple.
Apollo's sacred precinct in Delphi was a panhellenic sanctuary, where every four years, starting in 586 BC athletes from all over the Greek world competed in the Pythian Games, one of the four panhellenic (or stephanitic) games, precursors of the Modern Olympics. The victors at Delphi were presented with a laurel crown (stephanos) which was ceremonially cut from a tree by a boy who re-enacted the slaying of the Python. Delphi was set apart from the other games sites because it hosted the mousikos agon, musical competitions.
These Pythian Games rank second among the four stephanitic games chronologically and based on importance. These games, though, were different from the games at Olympia in that they were not of such vast importance to the city of Delphi as the games at Olympia were to the area surrounding Olympia. Delphi would have been a renowned city whether or not it hosted these games; it had other attractions that led to it being labeled the "omphalos" (navel) of the earth, in other words, the center of the world.
In the inner hestia ("hearth") of the Temple of Apollo, an eternal flame burned. After the battle of Plataea, the Greek cities extinguished their fires and brought new fire from the hearth of Greece, at Delphi; in the foundation stories of several Greek colonies, the founding colonists were first dedicated at Delphi.
The name Delphoi comes from the same root as δελφύς/delphys, "womb" and may indicate archaic veneration of Gaia at the site. Apollo is connected with the site by his epithet Δελφίνιος/Delphinios, "the Delphinian". The epithet is connected with dolphins (Greek: δελφίς,-ῖνος) in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (line 400), recounting the legend of how Apollo first came to Delphi in the shape of a dolphin, carrying Cretan priests on his back. The Homeric name of the oracle is Pytho (Πυθώ).
Another legend held that Apollo walked to Delphi from the north and stopped at Tempe, a city in Thessaly, to pick laurel (also known as bay tree) which he considered to be a sacred plant. In commemoration of this legend, the winners at the Pythian Games received a wreath of laurel picked in the Temple.
Delphi became the site of a major temple to Phoebus Apollo, as well as the Pythian Games and the famous prehistoric oracle. Even in Roman times, hundreds of votive statues remained, described by Pliny the Younger and seen by Pausanias.
Carved into the temple were three phrases: Γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seautón = know thyself) and Μηδέν ἄγαν (mēdén ágan = nothing in excess), and Ἑγγύα πάρα δ' ἄτη (eggýa pára d' atē = make a pledge and mischief is nigh), in antiquity, the origin of these phrases was attributed to one or more of the Seven Sages of Greece by authors such as Plato and Pausanias.
Additionally, according to Plutarch's essay on the meaning of the "E at Delphi" –the only literary source for the inscription– there was also inscribed at the temple a large letter E. Among other things epsilon signifies the number 5.
However, ancient as well as modern scholars have doubted the legitimacy of such inscriptions. According to one pair of scholars, "The actual authorship of the three maxims set up on the Delphian temple may be left uncertain. Most likely they were popular proverbs, which tended later to be attributed to particular sages."
According to the Homeric hymn to the Pythian Apollo, Apollo shot his first arrow as an infant which effectively slew the serpent Pytho, the son of Gaia, who guarded the spot. To atone the murder of Gaia's son, Apollo was forced to fly and spend eight years in menial service before he could return forgiven. A festival, the Septeria, was held every year, at which the whole story was represented: the slaying of the serpent, and the flight, atonement, and return of the god.
The Pythian Games took place every four years to commemorate Apollo's victory. Another regular Delphi festival was the "Theophania" (Θεοφάνεια), an annual festival in spring celebrating the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Hyperborea. The culmination of the festival was a display of an image of the gods, usually hidden in the sanctuary, to worshippers. The "Theoxenia" was held each summer, centred on a feast for "gods and ambassadors from other states". Myths indicate that Apollo killed the chthonic serpent Python, Pythia in older myths, but according to some later accounts his wife, Pythia, who lived beside the Castalian Spring. Some sources say it is because Python had attempted to rape Leto while she was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis.
This spring flowed toward the temple but disappeared beneath, creating a cleft which emitted chemical vapors that caused the Oracle at Delphi to reveal her prophecies. Apollo killed Python but had to be punished for it, since she was a child of Gaia. The shrine dedicated to Apollo was originally dedicated to Gaia and shared with Poseidon. The name Pythia remained as the title of the Delphic Oracle.
Erwin Rohde wrote that the Python was an earth spirit, who was conquered by Apollo, and buried under the Omphalos, and that it is a case of one deity setting up a temple on the grave of another. Another view holds that Apollo was a fairly recent addition to the Greek pantheon coming originally from Lydia. The Etruscans coming from northern Anatolia also worshipped Apollo, and it may be that he was originally identical with Mesopotamian Aplu, an Akkadian title meaning "son", originally given to the plague God Nergal, son of Enlil. Apollo Smintheus (Greek: Απόλλων Σμινθεύς), the mouse killer eliminates mice, a primary cause of disease, hence he promotes preventive medicine.
Delphi is perhaps best known for the oracle at the sanctuary that was dedicated to Apollo during the classical period. According to Aeschylus in the prologue of the Eumenides, it had origins in prehistoric times and the worship of Gaea. In the last quarter of the 8th century BC there is a steady increase in artifacts found at the settlement site in Delphi, which was a new, post-Mycenaean settlement of the late 9th century. Pottery and bronze work as well as tripod dedications continue in a steady stream, in comparison to Olympia. Neither the range of objects nor the presence of prestigious dedications proves that Delphi was a focus of attention for a wide range of worshippers, but the large quantity of high value goods, found in no other mainland sanctuary, certainly encourages that view.
Apollo spoke through his oracle: the sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia; she had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth (the "chasm"). When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. It has been speculated that a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, came out of this opening, though this theory remains debatable.
One theory states that a goat herder fed his flocks on Parnassus. It happened one day the goats started playing with great agility upon nearing a chasm in the rock; the goat herd noticing this held his head over the chasm causing the fumes to go to his brain; throwing him into a strange trance.
While in a trance the Pythia "raved" –probably a form of ecstatic speech– and her ravings were "translated" by the priests of the temple into elegant hexameters.
A review of contemporary toxicological literature indicates that it is oleander that causes symptoms similar to those of the Pythia. Pythia used oleander as a complement during the oracular procedure, chewing its leaves and inhaling their smoke. The toxic substances of oleander resulted in symptoms similar to those of epilepsy, the “sacred disease,” which amounted to the possession of the Pythia by the spirit of Apollo, an event that made the Pythia his spokesperson, and subsequently, his prophetess. This explanation sheds light on the alleged spirit and chasm of Delphi, that have been the subject of intense debate and interdisciplinary research for the last hundred years.
People consulted the Delphic oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. The oracle could not be consulted during the winter months, for this was traditionally the time when Apollo would live among the Hyperboreans. Dionysus would inhabit the temple during his absence.
H.W. Parke writes that the foundation of Delphi and its oracle took place before recorded history and its origins are obscure, but dating to the worship of Gaia.
The Delphic Oracle exerted considerable influence throughout the Greek world, and she was consulted before all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, and so forth. She also was respected by the Greek-influenced countries around the periphery of the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt. The oracle was also known to the early Romans. Rome's seventh and last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, after witnessing a snake near his palace, sent a delegation including two of his sons to consult the oracle.
The Oracle benefited from the patronage of the Macedonian kings. Later it was placed under the protection of the Aetolian League, which played the leading role in repelling the Gallic invasion of Brennus in 279 BC and saving the sanctuary. Delphi, under the domination of the Aetolians, enjoyed a period of peace until 168-167 BC, when the Romans were eventually able to permanently dominate the region. The Roman Republic protected the Oracle from a dangerous barbarian invasion in 109 BC and 105 BC. In 86 BC, during the Mithridatic Wars, the Roman general Sulla ordered the Amphictyons of Delphi to send him the precious metal offerings of the temple. They obeyed the order without objection, fearing the Roman power. Three years later, Medi, a Thracian tribe, raided Delphi, burned the temple, plundered the sanctuary and stole the “unquenchable fire” from the altar. During the raid, part of the temple roof collapsed. The same year, the Temple was severely damaged by an earthquake. Thus the Oracle fell in decay and the surrounding area became impoverished. The sparse local population led to difficulties in filling the posts required. The Oracle's credibility waned due to doubtful predictions.
When Nero came to Greece in AD 66, he took away over 500 of the best statues from Delphi to Rome. Subsequent Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty contributed significantly towards its restoration. The oracle relatively flourished again during the rule of emperor Hadrian, who is believed to have visited the oracle twice. Also, Hadrian offered complete autonomy to the city. Plutarch was a significant factor too, by his presence as a chief priest. Barbarian raids commenced again during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
By the 4th century, Delphi had acquired the status of a city, which was located to the west of the sanctuary grounds. Constantine the Great looted several monuments, most notably the Tripod of Plataea, which he used to decorate his new capital, Constantinople.
Despite the rise of Christianity across the Roman Empire, the oracle remained an active pagan centre throughout the 4th century, and the Pythian Games continued to be held at least until 424; however, the decline continued. The attempt of emperor Julian the Apostate to revive the dying ancient world, and with it the pagan religion, proved unsuccessful. Excavations have revealed a large three-aisled basilica in the city, as well as traces of a church building in the sanctuary's gymnasium. The site was abandoned in the 6th or 7th centuries, although a single bishop of Delphi is attested in an episcopal list of the late 8th/early 9th centuries.
Time and natural disasters added to the picture of desolation of the once glorious place, and the small and insignificant village of Kastri was founded on the site.
The Delphic Sibyl was a legendary prophetic figure who was said to have given prophecies at Delphi shortly after the Trojan War. The prophecies attributed to her circulated in written collections of prophetic sayings, along with the oracles of figures such as Bakis. The Sibyl had no connection to the oracle of Apollo, and should not be confused with the Pythia.
Occupation of the site at Delphi can be traced back to the Neolithic period with extensive occupation and use beginning in the Mycenaean period (1600–1100 BC). Most of the ruins that survive today date from the most intense period of activity at the site in the 6th century BC.
The ruins of the Temple of Delphi visible today date from the 4th century BC, and are of a peripteral Doric building. It was erected on the remains of an earlier temple, dated to the 6th century BC which itself was erected on the site of a 7th century BC construction attributed to the architects Trophonios and Agamedes.
The 6th century BC temple was named the "Temple of Alcmonidae" in tribute to the Athenian family who funded its reconstruction following a fire, which had destroyed the original structure. The new building was a Doric hexastyle temple of 6 by 15 columns. This temple was destroyed in 373 BC by an earthquake. The pediment sculptures are a tribute to Praxias and Androsthenes of Athens. Of a similar proportion to the second temple it retained the 6 by 15 column pattern around the stylobate. Inside was the adyton, the centre of the Delphic oracle and seat of Pythia. The temple had the statement "Know thyself", one of the Delphic maxims, carved into it (and some modern Greek writers say the rest were carved into it), and the maxims were attributed to Apollo and given through the oracle and/or the Seven Sages of Greece ("know thyself" perhaps also being attributed to other famous philosophers).
The temple survived until AD 390, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I silenced the oracle by destroying the temple and most of the statues and works of art in the name of Christianity. The site was completely destroyed by zealous Christians in an attempt to remove all traces of Paganism.
The Amphictyonic Council was a council of representatives from six Greek tribes that controlled Delphi and also the quadrennial Pythian Games. They met biannually and came from Thessaly and central Greece. Over time, the town of Delphi gained more control of itself and the council lost much of its influence.
From the entrance of the site, continuing up the slope almost to the temple itself, are a large number of votive statues, and numerous treasuries. These were built by the various Greek city states –those overseas as well as those on the mainland– to commemorate victories and to thank the oracle for her advice, which was thought to have contributed to those victories. They are called "treasuries" because they held the offerings made to Apollo; these were frequently a "tithe" or tenth of the spoils of a battle. The most impressive is the now-restored Athenian Treasury, built to commemorate the Athenians' victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
Several of the treasuries can be identified, among them the Siphnian Treasury, dedicated by the city of Siphnos whose citizens gave a tithe of the yield from their silver mines until the mines came to an abrupt end when the sea flooded the workings.
Other identifiable treasuries are those of the Sikyonians, the Boeotians, the Thebans, and the Athenians. One of the largest of the treasuries was that of Argos. Built in the late Doric period, the Argives took great pride in establishing their place amongst the other city states. Completed in 380, the treasury draws inspiration mostly from the Temple of Hera located in the Argolis, the acropolis of the city. However, recent analysis of the Archaic elements of the treasury suggest that its founding preceded this. Currently the rebuilt Treasury of the Athenians is the most impressive. Much of the architectural program is on display in the nearby museum.
Located in front of the Temple of Apollo, the main altar of the sanctuary was paid for and built by the people of Chios. It is dated to the 5th century BC by the inscription on its cornice. Made entirely of black marble, except for the base and cornice, the altar would have made a striking impression. It was restored in 1920.
The stoa leads off north-east from the main sanctuary. It was built in the Ionic order and consists of seven fluted columns, unusually carved from single pieces of stone (most columns were constructed from a series of discs joined together). The inscription on the stylobate indicates that it was built by the Athenians after their naval victory over the Persians in 478 BC, to house their war trophies. The stoa was attached to the existing Polygonal Wall.
The Sibyl rock is a pulpit-like outcrop of rock between the Athenian Treasury and the Stoa of the Athenians upon the sacred way which leads up to the temple of Apollo in the archaeological area of Delphi. It is claimed to be where an ancient Sibyl pre-dating the Pythia of Apollo sat to deliver her prophecies.
The ancient theatre at Delphi was built further up the hill from the Temple of Apollo giving spectators a view of the entire sanctuary and the valley below. It was originally built in the 4th century BC but was remodeled on several occasions since. Its 35 rows can seat 5,000 spectators.
The Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena Pronoia (Ἀθηνᾶ Πρόνοια, "Athena of forethought") is a circular building that was constructed between 380 and 360 BC. It consisted of 20 Doric columns arranged with an exterior diameter of 14.76 meters, with 10 Corinthian columns in the interior.
The Tholos is located approximately a half a mile (800m) from the main ruins at Delphi. Three of the Doric columns have been restored, making it the most popular site at Delphi for tourists to take photographs. Vitruvius (vii, introduction) notes Theodorus of Samos as the architect of the Round Building which is at Delphi.
The gymnasium, which is half a mile away from the main sanctuary, was a series of buildings used by the youth of Delphi. The building consisted of two levels: a stoa on the upper level providing open space, and a palaestra, pool and baths on lower floor. These pools and baths were said to have magical powers, and imparted the ability to communicate to Apollo himself.
The stadium is located further up the hill, beyond the via sacra and the theatre. It was originally built in the 5th century BC but was altered in later centuries. The last major remodeling took place in the 2nd century AD under the patronage of Herodes Atticus when the stone seating was built and (arched) entrance. It could seat 6500 spectators and the track was 177 metres long and 25.5 metres wide.
The hippodrome of Delphi was the location where the running events took place during the Pythian Games. No trace of it has been found, but the location of the stadium and some remnants of retaining walls lead to the conclusion that it was set on a plain apart from the main part of the city and well away from the Peribolos of Apollo.
The retaining wall was built to support the terrace housing the construction of the second temple of Apollo in 548 BC. Its name is taken from the polygonal masonry of which it is constructed. At a later date, from 200 BC onwards, the stones were inscribed with the manumission contracts of slaves who were consecrated to Apollo. Approximately a thousand manumissions are recorded on the wall.
The sacred spring of Delphi lies in the ravine of the Phaedriades. The preserved remains of two monumental fountains that received the water from the spring date to the Archaic period and the Roman, with the latter cut into the rock.
Delphi is famous for its many preserved athletic statues. It is known that Olympia originally housed far more of these statues, but time brought ruin to many of them, leaving Delphi as the main site of athletic statues. Kleobis and Biton, two brothers renowned for their strength, are modeled in two of the earliest known athletic statues at Delphi. The statues commemorate their feat of pulling their mother's cart several miles to the Sanctuary of Hera in the absence of oxen. The neighbors were most impressed and their mother asked Hera to grant them the greatest gift. When they entered Hera's temple, they fell into a slumber and never woke, dying at the height of their admiration, the perfect gift.
The Charioteer of Delphi is another ancient relic that has withstood the centuries. It is one of the best known statues from antiquity. The charioteer has lost many features, including his chariot and his left arm, but he stands as a tribute to athletic art of antiquity.
Ancient tradition accounted for four temples that successively occupied the site before the 548/7 BC fire, following which the Alcmaeonids built a fifth. The poet Pindar celebrated the Alcmaeonid's temple in Pythian 7.8-9 and he also provided details of the third building (Paean 8. 65-75). Other details are given by Pausanias (10.5.9-13) and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (294 ff.). The first temple was said to have been constructed out of olive branches from Tempe. The second was made by bees out of wax and wings but was miraculously carried off by a powerful wind and deposited among the Hyperboreans. The third, as described by Pindar, was created by the gods Hephaestus and Athena, but its architectural details included Siren-like figures or 'Enchantresses', whose baneful songs eventually provoked the Olympian gods to bury the temple in the earth (according to Pausanias, it was destroyed by earthquake and fire). In Pindar's words, addressed to the Muses:
Muses, what was its fashion, shown
By the skill in all arts
Of the hands of Hephaestus and Athena?
Of bronze the walls, and of bronze
Stood the pillars beneath,
But of gold were six Enchantresses
Who sang above the eagle.
But the sons of Cronus
Opened the earth with a thunderbolt
And hid the holiest of all things made.
They were angry at the sweet voice,
Because strangers perished
Away from their children
And wives, when they hung
Their lives on the honey-hearted words.
The Delphi Archaeological Museum is designed by Alexandros Tombazis, and is at the foot of the main archaeological complex, on the east side of the village, and on the north side of the main road. The museum houses an impressive collection associated with ancient Delphi, including the earliest known notation of a melody, the famous Charioteer, golden treasures discovered beneath the Sacred Way, and fragments of reliefs from the Siphnian Treasury. Immediately adjacent to the exit (and overlooked by most tour guides) is the inscription that mentions the Roman proconsul Gallio.
Entries to the museum and to the main complex are separate and chargeable, and a reduced rate ticket gets entry to both. There is a small cafe, and a post office by the museum.
The site had been occupied by the village of Kastri since medieval times. Before a systematic excavation of the site could be undertaken, the village had to be relocated but the residents resisted. The opportunity to relocate the village occurred when it was substantially damaged by an earthquake, with villagers offered a completely new village in exchange for the old site. In 1893 the French Archaeological School removed vast quantities of soil from numerous landslides to reveal both the major buildings and structures of the sanctuary of Apollo and of Athena Pronoia along with thousands of objects, inscriptions and sculptures.
The site is now an archaeological one, and a very popular tourist destination. It is easily accessible from Athens as a day trip, and is often combined with the winter sports facilities available on Mount Parnassus, as well as the beaches and summer sports facilities of the nearby coast of Phocis.
The site is also protected as a site of extraordinary natural beauty, and the views from it are also protected: no industrial artefacts are to be seen from Delphi other than roads and traditional architecture residences (for example high voltage power lines and the like are routed so as to be invisible from the area of the sanctuary).
Description of Delphi
ORACLES / Khrēsmoi (in Greek)
Noun: Oracle (plural oracles)
Verb: Oracle (third-person singular simple present oracles, present participle oracling, simple past and past participle oracled)
Synonyms: (priest acting as conduit of prophecy): prophet, (person who is a source of wisdom): expert
A shrine dedicated to some prophetic deity.
A person such as a priest through whom the deity is supposed to respond with prophecy or advice.
A prophetic response, often enigmatic or allegorical, so given.
A person considered to be a source of wisdom.
A literary oracle
A wise sentence or decision of great authority.
One who communicates a divine command; an angel; a prophet.
(Computing theory) A theoretical entity capable of answering some collection of questions.
(Jewish antiquity) The sanctuary, or most holy place in the temple; also, the temple itself.
Webster’s Dictionary, 1913
In classical antiquity, an oracle was a person or agency considered to provide wise counsel or prophetic predictions or precognition of the future, inspired by the gods. As such it is a form of divination.
The word "oracle" comes from the Latin verb ōrāre "to speak" and properly refers to the priest or priestess uttering the prediction. In extended use, oracle may also refer to the site of the oracle, and to the oracular utterances themselves, called khrēsmoi (χρησμοί) in Greek.
Oracles were thought to be portals through which the gods spoke directly to people. In this sense they were different from seers (manteis, μάντεις) who interpreted signs sent by the gods through bird signs, animal entrails, and other various methods.1
The most important oracles of Greek antiquity were Pythia, priestess to Apollo at Delphi, and the oracle of Dione and Zeus at Dodona in Epirus. Other temples of Apollo were located at Didyma on the coast of Asia Minor, at Corinth and Bassae in the Peloponnese, and at the islands of Delos and Aegina in the Aegean Sea. The Sibylline Oracles are a collection of oracular utterances written in Greek hexameters ascribed to the Sibyls, prophetesses who uttered divine revelations in a frenzied state.
Walter Burkert observes that "Frenzied women from whose lips the god speaks" are recorded in the Near East as in Mari in the second millennium BC and in Assyria in the first millennium BC.2 In Egypt the goddess Wadjet (eye of the moon) was depicted as a snake-headed woman or a woman with two snake-heads. Her oracle was in the renowned temple in Per-Wadjet (Greek name Buto). The oracle of Wadjet may have been the source for the oracular tradition which spread from Egypt to Greece.3 Evans linked Wadjet with the Minoan snake goddess, a chthonic deity and one of the aspects of the Great Mother.4
In Greece the old oracles were devoted to the Mother Goddess. At the oracle of Dodona she will be called Diōnē (the feminine form of Diós, genitive of Zeus, PIE *Dyaeus; or of dīos, "godly", literally "heavenly"), who represents the earth-fertile soil, probably the chief female goddess of the PIE pantheon. Python, daughter (or son) of Gaia was the earth dragon of Delphi represented as a serpent and became the chthonic deity, enemy of Apollo, who slew her and possessed the oracle.5
“When the Prytanies' seat shines white in the island of Siphnos, White-browed all the forum – need then of a true seer's wisdom-Danger will threat from a wooden boat, and a herald in scarlet ...” —The Pythoness6
The Pythia was the mouthpiece of the oracles of the god Apollo.7
Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, was said to be infallible. Pythia only gave prophecies the seventh day of each month, seven being the number most associated with Apollo, during the nine warmer months of the year; thus, Delphi was not the major source of divination for the ancient Greeks. Many wealthy individuals bypassed the hordes of people attempting a consultation by making additional animal sacrifices to please the oracle lest their request go unanswered. As a result, seers were the main source of everyday divination.
The temple was changed to a center for the worship of Apollo during the classical period of Greece and priests were added to the temple organization—although the tradition regarding prophecy remained unchanged—and the priestesses continued to provide the services of the oracle exclusively. It is from this institution that the English word, oracle, is derived.
The Delphic Oracle exerted considerable influence throughout Hellenic culture. Distinctively, this female was essentially the highest authority both civilly and religiously in male-dominated ancient Greece. She responded to the questions of citizens, foreigners, kings, and philosophers on issues of political impact, war, duty, crime, laws—even personal issues.8
The semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt also respected her and came to Delphi as supplicants.
Croesus, king of Lydia beginning in 560 B.C., tested the oracles of the world to discover which gave the most accurate prophecies. He sent out emissaries to seven sites who were all to ask the oracles on the same day what the king was doing at that very moment. Croesus proclaimed the oracle at Delphi to be the most accurate, who correctly reported that the king was making a lamb-and-tortoise stew, and so he graced her with a magnitude of precious gifts.9 He then consulted Delphi before attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus was advised, “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed”. Believing the response favorable, Croesus attacked, but it was his own empire that ultimately was destroyed by the Persians.
She allegedly also proclaimed that there was no man wiser than Socrates, to which Socrates said that, if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. After this confrontation, Socrates dedicated his life to a search for knowledge that was one of the founding events of western philosophy. He claimed that she was "an essential guide to personal and state development."10 This Oracle's last recorded response was given in 362 AD, to Julian the Apostate.11
The oracle's powers were highly sought after and never doubted. Any inconsistencies between prophecies and events were dismissed as failure to correctly interpret the responses, not an error of the oracle.12 Very often prophecies were worded ambiguously, so as to cover all contingencies – especially so ex post facto. One famous such response to a query about participation in a military campaign was "You will go you will return never in war will you perish". This gives the recipient liberty to place a comma before or after the word "never", thus covering both possible outcomes. Another was the response to the Athenians when the vast army of king Xerxes I was approaching Athens with the intent of razing the city to the ground. "Only the wooden palisades may save you", answered the oracle, probably aware that there was sentiment for sailing to the safety of southern Italy and reestablishing Athens there. Some thought that it was a recommendation to fortify the Acropolis with a wooden fence and make a stand there. Others, Themistocles among them, said the oracle was clearly for fighting at sea, the metaphor intended to mean war ships. Others still insisted that their case was so hopeless that they should board every ship available and flee to Italy, where they would be safe beyond any doubt. In the event, variations of all three interpretations were attempted: some barricaded the Acropolis, the civilian population was evacuated over sea to nearby Salamis Island and to Troizen, and the war fleet fought victoriously at Salamis Bay. Should utter destruction have happened, it could always be claimed that the oracle had called for fleeing to Italy after all.
Dodona was another oracle devoted to the Mother Goddess identified at other sites with Rhea or Gaia, but here called Dione. The shrine of Dodona was the oldest Hellenic oracle, according to the fifth-century historian Herodotus and in fact, dates to pre-Hellenic times, perhaps as early as the second millennium BC when the tradition probably spread from Egypt. Zeus displaced the Mother goddess and assimilated her as Aphrodite.
It became the second most important oracle in ancient Greece, which later was dedicated to Zeus and to Heracles during the classical period of Greece. At Dodona Zeus was worshipped as Zeus Naios or Naos (god of springs Naiads, from a spring which existed under the oak), and Zeus Bouleos (cancellor). Priestesses and priests interpreted the rustling of the oak leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken. The oracle was shared by Dione and Zeus.
Trophonius was an oracle at Lebadea of Boeotia devoted to the chthonian Zeus Trophonius. Trophonius is derived from the Greek word "trepho" (nourish) and he was a Greek hero, or demon or god. Demeter-Europa was his nurse.13 Europa (in Greek: broad-eyes) was a Phoenecian princess who Zeus transformed into a white bull abducted and carried her to Creta, and is equated with Astarte as a moon goddess by ancient sources.14 Some scholars connect Astarte with the Minoan snake goddess, whose cult as Aphrodite spread from Creta to Greece.15
"ORACLES" IN OTHER CULTURES
The term "oracle" is also applied to parallel institutions of divination in other cultures. Specifically, it is used in the context of Christianity for the concept of divine revelation, and in the context of Judaism for the Urim and Thummim breastplate, and in general any utterance considered prophetic.16
Oracle bone of the Shang Dynasty, ancient China
Oracles were common in many civilizations of antiquity. In China, the use of oracle bones dates as far back as the Shang Dynasty, (1600–1046 BC). The I Ching, or "Book of Changes", is a collection of linear signs used as oracles that are from that period. Although divination with the I Ching is thought to have originated prior to the Shang Dynasty, it was not until King Wu of Zhou (1046–1043 BC) that it took its present form. In addition to its oracular power, the I Ching has had a major influence on the philosophy, literature and statecraft of China from the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – AD 256).
In Celtic polytheism, divination was performed by the priestly caste, either the druids or the vates. This is reflected in the role of "seers" in Dark Age Wales (dryw) and Ireland (fáith).
In ancient India, the oracle was known as Akashwani or Ashareera vani (a person without body or unseen) or Asariri (Tamil), literally meaning "voice from the sky" and was related to the message of god. Oracles played key roles in many of the major incidents of the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. An example is that Kamsa (or Kansa), the evil uncle of lord Krishna, was informed by an oracle that the eighth son of his sister Devaki would kill him. There are still a few existing and publicly accessible oracles in India.
In Tibet, oracles have played, and continue to play, an important part in religion and government. The word "oracle" is used by Tibetans to refer to the spirit that enters those men and women who act as media between the natural and the spiritual realms. The media are, therefore, known as kuten, which literally means, "the physical basis".
The Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in northern India, still consults an oracle known as the Nechung Oracle, which is considered the official state oracle of the government of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has according to centuries-old custom, consulted the Nechung Oracle during the new year festivities of Losar.17 Nechung and Gadhong are the primary oracles currently consulted; former oracles such as Karmashar and Darpoling are no longer active in exile. Another oracle the Dalai Lama consults is the Tenma Oracle, for which a young Tibetan woman is the medium for the goddess. The Dalai Lama gives a complete description of the process of trance and spirit possession in his book Freedom in Exile.18
In the migration myth of the Mexitin, i.e., the early Aztecs, a mummy-bundle (perhaps an effigy) carried by four priests directed the trek away from the cave of origins by giving oracles. An oracle led to the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The Yucatec Mayas knew oracle priests or chilanes, literally 'mouthpieces' of the deity. Their written repositories of traditional knowledge, the Books of Chilam Balam, were all ascribed to one famous oracle priest who correctly had predicted the coming of the Spaniards and its associated disasters.
The Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria in Africa have a long tradition of using oracles. In Igbo villages, oracles were usually female priestesses to a particular deity, usually dwelling in a cave or other secluded location away from urban areas, and, much as the oracles of ancient Greece, would deliver prophecies in an ecstatic state to visitors seeking advice. Two of their ancient oracles became especially famous during the pre-colonial period: the Agbala oracle at Awka and the Chukwu oracle at Arochukwu.19 Though the vast majority of Igbos today are Christian, many of them still use oracles.
Amongst the related Yoruba peoples of the same country, the Babalawos (and their female counterparts, the Iyanifas) serve collectively as the principal aspects of the tribe's World-famous Ifa divination system. Due to this, they customarily officiate at a great many of its traditional and religious ceremonies.
In Norse mythology, Odin took the severed head of the mythical god Mimir to Asgard for consultation as an oracle. The Havamal and other sources relate the sacrifice of Odin for the oracular Runes whereby he lost an eye (external sight) and won wisdom (internal sight; insight).
In Hawaii, oracles were found at certain heiau. These oracles were found in towers covered in white kapa. In here, priests received the will of gods. These towers were called "'Anu'u." An example of this can be found at Ahu'ena heiau in Kona.20
1. Flower, Michael Attyah. The Seer in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
2. Walter Burkert. Greek Religion. Harvard University Press. 1985.p 116-118
3. Herodotus ii 55, and vii 134.
4. Cristopher L.C. Whitcomp. Minoan Snake goddess.8.Snakes, Egypt, Magic and women
5. Hymn to Pythian Apollo. 363,369
6. Herodotus – The history of Herodotus: A new English version, ed. with copious notes and appendices, illustrating the history and geography of Herodotus, from the most recent sources of information; and embodying the chief results, historical and ethnographical, which have been obtained in the progress of cuneiform and hieroglyphical discovery, Volume 2 from (...and, G Rawlinson (The Histories) Retrieved 2012-06-16
7. Plato, G.M.A. Grube, J.M. Cooper - The Trial and Death of Socrates (Third Edition): Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Death Scene from Phaedo (page 24 - footnote 7) Hackett Publishing, 2000 ISBN 1603846476 [Retrieved 2015-04-25]
8. Broad, W. J. (2007), p.43
9. Broad, W. J. (2007), p.51-53
10. Broad, W. J. (2007), p.63. Socrates also argued that the oracle's effectiveness was rooted in her ability to abandon herself completely to a higher power by way of insanity or "sacred madness."
11. Thomas, Carol G. (1988). Paths from Ancient Greece. Brill Publishers. p. 47.
12. Broad, W. J. (2007), p.15
13. Pausanias.Guide to Greece 9.39.2–5.
14. Lucian of Samosata.De Dea Syria.4
15. R.Wunderlich. The secret of Creta. Efstathiadis Group.Athens 1987.p 134
16. OED s.v. "oracle n."
17. Gyatso, Tenzin (1988). Freedom in Exile: the Autobiography of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Fully revised and updated. Lancaster Place, London, UK: Abacus Books (A Division of Little, Brown and Company UK). ISBN 0-349-11111-1. p.233
19. Webster J.B. and Boahen A.A., The Revolutionary Years, West Africa since 1800, Longman, London, p. 107–108.
20. John Fischer. "'Anu'u (oracle tower) and Ki'i Akua (temple images) at 'Ahu'ena Heiau in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island". About.com Travel.
^ Broad, William J. 2007. The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets. New York: Penguin Press.
^ Broad, William J. 2006. The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi. New York: Penguin Press.
^ Curnow, T. 1995. The Oracles of the Ancient World: A Comprehensive Guide. London: Duckworth – ISBN 0-7156-3194-2
^ Evans-Pritchard, E. 1976. Witchcraft, oracle, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
^ Fontenrose, J. 1981. The Delphic Oracle. Its responses and operations with a catalogue of responses. Berkeley: University of California Press (main page)
^ Smith, Frederick M. (2006). The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature. Columbia University Press, USA. ISBN 0-231-13748-6.
^ Stoneman, Richard (2011). The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak. Yale University Press, USA
^ Garoi Ashram, (2004–2011). The copper oracle of Sri Achyuta: answers as instantaneous inscription.
In Greek mythology, Python (Greek: Πύθων, gen.: Πύθωνος) was the earth-dragon of Delphi, Greece, always represented in Greek sculpture and vase-paintings as a serpent. He presided at the Delphic oracle, which existed in the cult center for his mother Gaia/Earth, Pytho being the place name that was substituted for the earlier Krisa.1 Hellenes considered the site to be the center of the earth, represented by a stone, the omphalos or navel, which Python guarded.
Python became the chthonic enemy of the later Olympian deity Apollo, who slew him and remade Python's former home and the oracle, the most famous2 in Classical Greece, as his own. Changes such as these in ancient myths may reflect a profound change in the religious concepts of Hellenic culture. Some were gradual over time and others occurred abruptly following invasion.
Versions and interpretations
There are various versions of Python's birth and death at the hands of Apollo. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, now thought to have been composed in 522 BCE during Classical times3, a small detail is provided regarding Apollo's combat with the serpent, in some sections identified as the deadly Drakaina, or her parent.
The version related by Hyginus4 holds that when Zeus lay with the goddess Leto, and she was to deliver Artemis and Apollo, Hera was jealous and sent Python to pursue Leto throughout the lands, so that she could not deliver wherever the sun shone. Thus when Apollo was grown he wanted to avenge his mother's plight and pursued Python, making his way straight for Mount Parnassus where the serpent dwelled, and chased it to the oracle of Gaia at Delphi; there he dared to penetrate the sacred precinct and kill it with his arrows beside the rock cleft where the priestess sat on her tripod.
Robert Graves, who habitually read into primitive myths a retelling of archaic political and social turmoil, saw in this the capturing by Hellenes of a pre-Hellenic shrine. "To placate local opinion at Delphi," he wrote in The Greek Myths, "regular funeral games were instituted in honour of the dead hero Python, and her priestess was retained in office."
The politics are conjectural, but the myth reports that Zeus ordered Apollo to purify himself for the sacrilege and instituted the Pythian Games, over which Apollo was to preside, as penance for his act.
Erwin Rohde wrote that the Python was an earth spirit, who was conquered by Apollo, and buried under the Omphalos, and that it is a case of one god setting up his temple on the grave of another.5
The priestess of the oracle at Delphi became known as the Pythia, after the place-name Pytho, which Greeks explained as named after the rotting (πύθειν) of the slain serpent's corpse in the strength of Hyperion (day) or Helios (the sun).6
Karl Kerenyi points out7 that the older tales mentioned two dragons, who were perhaps intentionally conflated; the other was a female dragon (drakaina) named Delphyne in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with whom dwelt a male serpent named Typhon: "The narrators seem to have confused the dragon of Delphi, Python, with Typhon or Typhoeus, the adversary of Zeus". The enemy dragoness "... actually became an Apollonian serpent, and Pythia, the priestess who gave oracles at Delphi, was named after him.
Many pictures show the serpent Python living in amity with Apollo and guarding the Omphalos, the sacred navel-stone and mid-point of the earth, which stood in Apollo's temple" (Kerenyi 1951:136).
This myth has been described as an allegory for the dispersal of the fogs and clouds of vapor which arise from ponds and marshes (Python) by the rays of the sun (the arrows of Apollo).8
1. Hymn to Pythian Apollo, l. 254-74: Telphousa recommends to Apollo to build his oracle temple at the site of "Krisa below the glades of Parnassus".
2. But also see Dodona, famous in the earliest traditions.
3. Walter Burkert, "Kynaithos, Polycrates and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo" in Arktouros: Hellenic studies presented to B. M. W. Knox ed. G. W. Bowersock, W. Burkert, M. C. J. Putnam (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979) pp. 53-62.
4. Fabulae 140.
5. cf. Rohde, Psyche, p.97.
6. Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, 363-369.
7. Kerenyi The Gods of the Greeks 1951:136.
8. Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Python, in Greek mythology". Encyclopedia Americana.
- Wikimedia Commons has media related to Python (mythology).
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985.
- Deane, John Bathurst, The Worship of the Serpent, 1833. cf. Chapter V., p. 329.  
- Farnell, Lewis Richard, The Cults of the Greek States, 1896.
- Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy, Python; a study of Delphic myth and its origins, 1959.
- Goodrich, Norma Lorre, Priestesses, 1990.
- Guthrie, William Keith Chambers, The Greeks and their Gods, 1955.
- Hall, Manly Palmer, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928. Ch. 14 cf. Greek Oracles, www, PRS
- Harrison, Jane Ellen, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 1912. cf. Chapter IX, p. 329 especially, on the slaying of the Python.
- Kerenyi, Karl, (1951) 1980. The Gods of the Greeks especially pp 135–6.  
- Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo
- Rohde, Erwin, Psyche, 1925.
- Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873).
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