The Oracle of Delphi

The Oracle Of Delphi: a site of the past that told the future

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Once marked as the navel (and centre) of the world by the Ancient Greeks, The Oracle of Delphi was one of the most important places during the time it was active in the ancient world. Its namesake is believed by Alexander Wilder to come from the word Delphos, meaning the womb. Representing the womb of the earth, as the earth itself was representative of a ‘grand being’. 

Its original name was Pytho, derived from the mythological tale of Python.

Python was a deity in Ancient Greek mythology that lived in the dark depths of the earth, often depicted in a similar fashion to a medieval dragon. 

A classic tale of light vs. darkness

Apollo slays Python at Delphi
Apollo Slays Python

He was slain by the sun god, Apollo, who climbed Mount Parnassus to take revenge on Python. This was because Hera, wife of Zeus had been angered by her husband’s infidelity. The goddess Hera told Python to hunt Apollo’s mother, Leto, while she was pregnant with Zeus’s twins, Apollo and Artemis. 

Apollo slew Python after he climbed out of the depths of the earth following a great flood, when all of humanity (except Deucalion and Pyrrha who were Greek myth’s version of Noah) was wiped from its surface. 

As the tale goes, the body of Python, now lying in the depths of the earth began to decay, and the noxious fumes of Python’s decaying body was responsible for the nature of the oracles at Delphi. 

Delphi was home to a future-sighted oracle

The position of foresight and prophecy was bestowed on a priestess known as Pythia or Pythoness. The priestess was a middle-aged woman who sat above the chasm of Python on a three legged golden tripod, inhaling the noxious fumes that seeped out from below and allowing the spirit of Apollo to speak though her.  

A long-standing tradition

The oracle of Delphi has records dating back as early as 1400BC and continued all the way through to 4th century AD. It appears that the Greeks had many long-standing, mysterious practices for a culture who many consider the founders of science and logic. Check out another 2,000 year practice among the Ancient Greek, The Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Present Site at Delphi, 1600 years after it was outlawed by Rome

The origin of the Oracle Of Delphi

The Oracle of Delphi was believed to have been discovered by shepherds, who while tending to their flock noticed their goats dancing wildly and making strange sounds about the site. One curious Shepherd chose to investigate and upon getting closer, inhaled the noxious fumes seeping out from below. He began spouting tales of the future, and so others curious to try also began to inhale these fumes of a dead deity. 

It wasn’t before long that many were flocking to this now infamous site. Leading to some entering a frenzy and jumping into the hole, plummeting to their deaths. And so, a wall was put up around the site and a golden tripod installed above it. It was here that a priestess would be placed, that would be the interpreter between God and Man. Initially she was a young virgin, but due to claims of assault, she was replaced with a middle-aged woman dressed in virgin’s clothes. 

The site itself may have become the center of much religious culture among the Greeks, but it was most likely in use long before it was uncovered by popularity. There are records of many caverns and the like allowing communication between mortal and immortal. 

The Ancients held the oracle in such high regard that no major decisions were made without consulting the oracle of Delphi. 

Plutarch, a reliable source from antiquity, served as a priest at Delphi:

In his histories he left many details about the inner workings of the sanctuary:

Pythia entered the inner chamber of the temple (“Adyton”), sat on the three-legged golden tripod and inhaled the light gasses that escaped from a chasm of the earth. After falling into a trance, she muttered incomprehensible words. The priests of the sanctuary then interpreted her oracles in a common language. Then delivered them to those who had requested them. 

There are conflicting reports on whether this was true, as many accounts state that the channel entered a frenzy. While others have stated that it was the Pythia herself that delivered the message calmly and intelligibly; no interpreter necessary. 

Nonetheless, the oracles were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings. This led to famous accounts of leaders misinterpreting signals. For example, Croseus, the king of Lydia was told that if he went to war with Persia a great kingdom would fall. What he did not realize was that it would be his own kingdom. 

After receiving this prediction from the oracle he asked “would his monarchy last long?” 

The response recorded was thus:

Whenever a mule shall become sovereign king of the Medians, then, Lydian Delicate-Foot, flee by the stone-strewn Hermus, flee, and think not to stand fast, nor shame to be chicken-hearted.

A mule referring to half-breed or not pure of blood, which Croseus deemed impossible and so attacked Persia because he interpreted it as him reigning long. What he was not aware of apparently, was that Cyrus, the victor, was half Mede (by his mother), half Persian (by his father) and therefore could be considered a “mule“. 

It has been claimed that Pythagoras’ name was derived from Pytho. 

His father sought out travel advice from the oracle on his return from Delphi to Syria. Instead of answering his question of whether it would be a fortunate trip, he was told of a son he was about to have, who would surpass all men in beauty and wisdom. When his son arrived he gave great respect to the oracle and named his newborn son in commemoration of them. Check out my first article on Pythagoras.

As the centuries passed, Delphi slowly faded from the attention of the masses. By the early AD it had become a shadow of what it once was. Some claim that the reason Plutarch gave so much focus to the oracle of Delphi, in a time when it had all but disappeared, was because he wished to bring it back into the forefront and have it regain its stature. 

Unfortunately, it did not do so, and in the 4th century AD Emperor Theodosius I banned pagan practices and ended the time of the Oracle of Delphi. 

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