The greatest oracle of the ancient world occupies one of the most spectacular, lyrical settings in Greece: a shelving ledge below the sheer Phaedriades (the Shining Cliffs), with a wild glen and dense olive groves at its feet, and the Gulf of Corinth 2,000ft below. Like Olympia, Delphi was a holy place that all Greeks shared; it was the centre of the world – when Zeus released an eagle in the east and an eagle in the west, Delphi is where they met; it was the great authority appearing somewhere in nearly every Hellenic myth and saga. And the whole – the stories, the temples, the art in the treasuries – was a masterpiece, albeit with a pinch of humbug.
Gaia, or Earth, had the first oracle here, with her consort Poseidon. Her daughter Themis, goddess of justice and order, inherited it, then Phoebe the Moon goddess, who ‘as a birthday gift’ gave it to Phoebos Apollo – a succession that mirrors the interests of religion itself, from early fertility cults to the great cosmic patterns of the sun and stars. The oracle’s first name was Pytho, and it was watched over by Earth’s guardian, Python, who like the Athenian Kerkops was a hero-snake, a sacred king, who had to be killed to make way for the new. To get there from his natal Délos, Apollo turned himself into a dolphin (delphinos, hence Delphi) and hijacked a Cretan ship; he shot Pytho, and the Omphalos, the navel, the holy of holies, was his tomb.
Apollo evolved into what must have been the ideal of every Greek man – handsome, lusty, arty, an ace at the bow or lyre, the ultimate Olympian, the god of truth and light. Although the rationalizers made Python into an evil monster, Apollo had to be cleansed of the murder, and he spent eight years in self-imposed exile as a slave of the King of Thessaly in the Vale of Tempe, tending his flocks. When he returned to Delphi, he instituted the Pythian Games to celebrate. His first priests were Cretan captains from Knossós’ fleet, recalling the Minoan roots of his cult.
Apollo, however, didn’t spend the whole year at Delphi, but in November went north for his annual confab with the Hyperborians. For the three months when no oracles were given, Apollo’s youngest brother Dionysos took over the sanctuary. Women from Athens and Delphi, known as the Thyiads, would join in orgiastic rites on Mount Parnossós, culminating every nine years in a festival called the Herois, in which the Thyiads ‘brought up Semele’ (the mother of Dionysos, who was really Gaia) from Hades to bless the earth. The priests would later downplay this side of Delphi a bit, better to promote the Apollonian message of truth and light; the Romans, who lacked the psychological fine-tuning of the Greeks, would deny it altogether, and propagated the story that Parnassós was the home of Apollo and the Muses.
The long continuity of the sanctuary in myth has physical evidence in Delphi’s Minoan finds, traces of Mycenaean building under Apollo’s Temple and a cache of 200 Mycenaean terracotta statues found under the Temple of Athena Pronaia. This Athena superseded a Bronze Age goddess, who was remembered perhaps by the fact that it was always a woman, the Pythia, who spoke for Apollo. The oracle, originally in the middle of a village, was in business by the time of the Iliad. It gained more than local importance in response to a very precise need in the late 8th–7th centuries bc: to offer guidance to the newly emergent land-hungry city-states, especially in directing and sanctioning the founding of colonies abroad. Delphi was the first shared oracle and as such specialized in community issues, legitimizing crucial decisions made by oligarchs, kings and tyrants alike. Although remote (which helped maintain its neutrality), the frequent comings and goings made Delphi the central switchboard of the Greek world. Its festival, held every eighth year, featured a competition of songs performed on the lyre.
The first Temple of Apollo was built between 650 and 600 bc, when the Delphians were forced to move outside the holy precinct. It marked a crisis in relations between the locals and outside interests in the sanctuary – the so-called First Sacred War of 600–590 bc – which may not even have really happened, but nicely explained the rise of the Amphictyony (‘those who dwell around’) of 12 tribes (the Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, Thessalians, etc.) that took control of the sanctuary, declared Delphi an independent city, put the fertile Crisaean Plain below off limits to the plough, and reduced the locals to temple servants. The Amphictyonic League, a kind of proto-United Nations, met twice a year, once at Delphi and once at Thermopylae. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo also appeared at this time, and emphasized the panhellenic aspect of the cult; the old Delphic festival was reorganized as the quadrennial Pythian Games, one of the four crown events of Greece (see pp.186 and 223). But the music competitions remained as important as the usual athletic contests and chariot racing on the Crisaean Plain. Winners were crowned with bay from the Vale of Tempe.
Although participation in the Pythian Games was limited to Greeks, the Delphic oracle acquired international prestige: Egyptians, Etruscans and Persians all made the arduous journey to consult it. In 548 bc, the sanctuary was destroyed by fire, but the temple and the treasuries were soon rebuilt on a grander scale with money sent from all over the known world. No one, however, contributed as much as the Alkmaeonids of Athens, who took over the temple project and paid for it to be faced in Parian marble. The grateful oracle then ordered the Spartans to oust the Alkmaeonids’ enemies, the Pisistratids, from Athens. This serious breech of ethics was followed by a second scandal in 490, when the Spartan king Cleomenes I paid the oracle to declare his fellow king Demaratus illegitimate, but was caught and committed suicide.
Trying to preserve its reputation, the oracle became cautious, and took the Persian side in the wars. Xerxes showed his gratitude by sending an expedition to pillage Delphi, but Apollo knew how to ‘protect his own’ with a miraculous rock slide. The whole saga of the oracle’s advice to Athens, to rely on its ‘wooden walls’ and ‘divine Sálamis’ may even have been invented by Themistocles to increase support for his naval plans; many famous oracles were actually made up after the fact, back when a polis had time to ‘improve’ history. By the time of the Peloponnesian War, when Thucydides interviewed eye-witnesses, it couldn’t ‘use’ the oracle as freely; also, Athens began to keep records on stone, making the past harder to tweak. But perhaps most importantly, the Greek states, especially the democracies, felt sufficiently legitimate to not want any second guessing from Apollo.
In spite of the fall-off in big state oracles, Delphi continued to be honoured as the ultimate authority on religion. Victors in war felt obliged to send Apollo a tithe of the spoils, which were used to create works of art in a fever of one-upmanship. In 448 bc a Second Sacred War broke out for local control of the sanctuary, with Athens taking the Phocian side and Spartans the Delphian side. In 373 rocks from the Phaedriades cliff fell on the Temple of Apollo, and in 356, while contributions came in for its rebuilding, the Phocians started the Third Sacred War by rifling the treasuries to pay their army; after their 15 minutes of fame as a Greek powerhouse, Philip II of Macedon smashed them, kicked them out of the Amphictiony and made them repair the damage (346 bc). In 279 bc the Galatians tried to seize Delphi, but a combination of local heroics and another timely landslide from the Phaedriades saved the day. The Romans did some repair work when they weren’t pillaging (Sulla took all the gold and silver in 83 bc; Nero, who competed in the games and naturally won a music prize, pinched 500 statues). In the 2nd century ad, Hadrian and Herodes Atticus restored it all and the Pythia spoke again, mostly for Roman tourists. The last oracle was given to Julian the Apostate in the 360s, whose envoy received the apocryphal reply: ‘Tell the king, the fair-wrought hall has fallen to the ground. No longer has Phoebus a hut, nor a prophetic laurel, nor a spring that speaks.’
The Huns and Goths finished it off, and in the 7th century a new hamlet, Kástri, grew up over the remains. In 1861, the French, who received the much-sought permission to excavate, began to dig, only to be delayed 30 years because of a wrangle over French taxes on Greek currants. Their exciting discoveries inspired the poet Angelos Sikelianós and his American wife Eva to found an International Delphic centre and host a festival of drama, dance, music and sports, in an attempt to ‘restore the basic principles of Classical civilization’, which Sikelianós thought had been misinterpreted and corrupted over history (one festival did take place in 1927 before the Depression dried up the funds). In 1960, Sikelianós’ idea was given a new lease of life with the creation of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi, near the Amalía Hotel, to revive the place as an intellectual and cultural centre. It hosts congresses (2003 offers a series of symposia on ancient Greek drama), and has purchased the Sikelianós’ house and made it into a museum of Delphic Festivals (contact them at 9 Frynihou St, 10558 Athens, t 210 331 2781, f 210 331 2786, and ask for their booklet in English).
The Pythia was a local woman chosen by the Delphians; at first they selected beautiful virgins, but, after a sex scandal in the temple, stuck to women over 50. She was assisted by two Prophets (priests appointed for life) and five Hosioi, who came from Delphian families that claimed descent from Deukalion and who attended to religious duties, mainly the winter rites of Dionysos. At first the oracle was open only on Apollo’s birthday, the 7th Bysios (February), but such was the demand that eventually consultations were held every month on the 7th day from February to October; at Delphi’s peak, three Pythias worked shifts.
Most pilgrims (theopropoi) arrived by sea at Crisa’s port, where extortionate landing fees were said to be the cause behind the First Sacred War. At Delphi, they would purify themselves in the Castalian spring and pay a fee, which varied whether the pilgrim was an individual or a state envoy. The pilgrim then offered a goat for sacrifice, but first a pitcher of cold water was poured over it; if it shuddered it was a sign that the god would respond. Then lots were drawn to determine the order of consultation; states that sent Delphi major donations like Náxos and Chíos were given the privilege of jumping the queue (protomanteia). When it was a pilgrim’s turn, he (no women were allowed) would be admitted to a room next to the adyton, the holy chamber in the Temple of Apollo, to ask his question of the Pythia. She too would have ritually prepared for the moment, by fasting and bathing in the Castalian spring, and burning bay and barley on the altar. She wore a bay leaf crown, sipped water from the Kasiotis spring, held a sprig of bay in her hand and sat on a tripod.
Where this tripod was and how she actually delivered her answer is a subject of lively debate. Legend has it that a shepherd first noticed that vapours emerging from a cleft in the earth allowed humans to see the future, and that this power had been harnessed and limited to the Pythia, who descended into a cave to sit by the cleft, mildly poisoned herself by chewing laurel leaves, and then replied to the question in an excited frenzy, blurting out gobbledegook which the two prophets interpreted and put into hexameter verse. But the archaeologists found no sign of a cleft, and the whole idea of a mad frenzy was apparently derived from Latin authors who confused mantic (prophetic) and mania (‘the feeling of participating in the divine’), which they mistranslated as ‘madness’. All historical records of Delphic consultations have the Pythia making articulate responses directly to the pilgrim. Sometimes, however, when a individual or state sent an envoy and the question was personal or secret, it would be written on a lead tablet and sealed in an envelope. The priest would then copy down the Pythia’s reply and send it back, similarly sealed.
Because the oracle was a private affair, few genuine responses have come down to us (Joseph Fontenrose has catalogued them all in his book, the Delphic Oracle). Most of these are straightforward; ambiguous ones, not surprisingly, were issued when the outcome was doubtful. But even if the ‘big oracles’ such as the one that misled Croesus into attacking Persia (‘If you cross the Halys you will destroy a great empire’), are really the result of the Greek urge to improve a story, the Greeks themselves believed it happened, and that belief kept Delphi in business for a thousand years.
© Dana Facaros