The Delphic Oracle
The Oracle of Delphi is an oracle at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, located at the foot of Mount Parnassus in Phokis. According to Greek mythology, it was built by Apollo on the site of his victory over the monstrous serpent Python. Nominally the main person was a priestess (Pythia), but in fact all the predictions came from the priests of the temple.
In ancient times, the oracle had a staggering fame and often influenced the course of history. Many famous historical figures turned to it for predictions, regarding this or that issue. The oracle’s answers were taken seriously because they were considered to be “from above”.
Oracles in ancient Greece
In the Hellenic world, the practice of appealing to the gods was very common. The heavenly powers were invoked on various occasions, especially when serious matters were involved.
Next to some temples there lived trained priests – oracles. An interesting fact is that in Delphi a priestess (Pythia) prophesied, whereas mostly men were oracles. Because only rich people had access to the Delphi oracle, the common people had to be satisfied with the interpretations of wandering soothsayers.
It is worth noting that the Delphi’s Oracle, i.e. the Oracle, often answered the questions of the inquirers rather abstractly, which gave rise to ambiguity and loss of specificity. Besides that, history has preserved enough cases when Pythians were bribed to divine the way they “needed”.
The Temple of the Oracle of Delphi
According to Greek mythology, originally on the site of the temple, there was a sanctuary of the goddess Gaia. According to legend, before founding his temple, Apollo killed the guardian of Gaia’s sanctuary, the dragon Python (hence the name “pythia”).
The victorious Apollo needed priests for the newly formed temple. So he transformed himself into a dolphin (hence the name “Delphic”) and darted out to sea in search of one. Soon he approached a Cretan ship and offered the sailors to become priests in his temple.
Pythia in a painting by John Collier
These sailors became the first priests in the Temple of Delphi, which was named after the apparition of Apollo in the form of a dolphin. At the same time, the first pythia was Apollo’s daughter, Themonoea. At that time, before leaving for their great military campaigns, kings and military commanders came to the Oracle.
They would ask him questions, wanting to know the outcome of their battles, or how the war would affect their economy. Apollo was then revered as the patron of colonial campaigns. Later, the Delphic priests were instrumental in bringing the oracles of the Cumaean Sibylline to Rome, exerting Hellenic influence on local religion and tradition.
Various rulers were eager to ask a question of the oracle and were willing to travel great distances to communicate with the Pythia. Curiously enough, King Midas even donated a golden throne to the shrine.
A great number of pilgrims came here. However, it was only possible to ask the Delphi’s Oracle anything on certain dates and only after performing a series of cleansing rituals. In addition to this, the Oracle had to be presented with a sacrifice and a corresponding fee.
Inside the sanctuary was a place, the aditon, which remained inaccessible to visitors. A golden statue of Apollo and sundry implements were placed there. Under the aditon was a sarcophagus that supposedly contained the ashes of the serpent Python.
Pythia refused to foretell people whose name was besmirched by crimes. Before answering visitors’ questions, she performed ablutions in the Castalia Spring, after which she placed a laurel wreath on her head.
Then the priestess would go down to the aditon to drink from the spring, chew the laurel, and sit on a tripod. Inhaling the vapors from the cleft, she would fall into a narcotic trance, beginning to mutter various phrases, which the priests would then decipher. That was how the Delphic predictions were made.
According to the myths, the sanctuary was the center of the world. In fact, the center of the earth was a concrete object: Omphalus. It represented a huge stone which Zeus had thrown to the earth.
In a sense, Delphi became the center of Hellenic Greece. In the hands of the priests the serious snarls of influence of society were concentrated. They could interpret the “will of the gods” as they saw fit, acting for their own gain.