For nearly 2,000 years, the Oracle of Delphi was the most prominent religious figure of the Ancient Greek world.
Many believed the oracle to be the messenger of the Greek god Apollo. Apollo was the god of light, music, knowledge, harmony, and prophecy. The ancient Greeks believed the Oracle spoke the words of the god, delivered as prophecies whispered to her by Apollo.
The Oracle of Delphi was a high priestess, or Pythia, as she was known, who served in the sanctuary of the Greek god Apollo. The ancient Greek oracle served at the shrine built upon the sacred site of Delphi.
Delphi was considered the center or navel of the ancient Greek world. The ancient Greeks believed that the Oracle of Delphi existed from the beginning of time, placed there by Apollo himself to tell the future as he saw it.
The Oracle of Delphi was regarded as the most powerful woman of the Classical period. The story of the Delphic oracle has captivated scholars across the ages. So, why was the Oracle of Delphi held in such high esteem? What made the Delphic Oracle so important?
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What is the Oracle of Delphi?
For centuries, the high priestess of the sacred temple of Apollo at Delphi assumed the role of the oracle. Many once believed that the oracle could communicate directly with Apollo, and functioned as a vessel for delivering his prophecies.
The peak period of influence of the Oracle of Delphi spanned the 6th and 4th Centuries BCE. People came from all over the ancient Greek empire and beyond to consult with the revered high priestess.
The Delphic oracle was considered the most influential source of wisdom throughout ancient Greece, for it was one of the few ways people could communicate “directly” with Greek gods. The Oracle would dictate the type of seed or grain planted, offer consultation on private matters, and dictate the day battle was waged.
The Oracle of Delphi was not the only oracle found in ancient Greek religion. In fact, they were quite commonplace and as normal as priests to the ancient Greeks. The oracles were believed to be able to communicate with the gods they served. However, the Delphic Oracle was the most famous of the Greek oracles.
The Oracle of Delphi attracted visitors from across the Ancient world. Great leaders of ancient empires, along with regular members of society, made the trek to Delphi to consult the oracle. King Midas and the leader of the Roman Empire, Hadrian are among those who sought the prophecies of the Pythia.
According to Plutarch’s records, those who sought the wisdom of the Pythia could only do so nine days a year. Much of what we know of how the Pythia operated, is thanks to Plutarch, who served alongside the oracle in the temple.
The oracle would be open for consultations one day a month over the nine warmest months. No consultations were held during the cold winter months, as it was believed that Apollo’s divine presence left for warmer climates during the winter.
Not much more is known about how the Oracle operated.
Delphi, the Navel of the World
Ancient Delphi was a sacred site chosen by the king of gods himself, Zeus. According to Greek mythology, Zeus sent two eagles from the top of Mount Olympus out into the world to find the center of mother earth. One of the eagles headed west and the other east.
READ MORE: The Twelve Olympian Gods
The eagles crossed at a site nestled between the two towering rocks of Mount Parnassus. Zeus declared Delphi the center of the world and marked it with a sacred stone called the omphalos, which means navel. By chance, archeologists found a stone allegedly used as a marker, within the temple.
The sacred site was said to have been protected by mother earth’s daughter, in the form of a Python. Apollo killed the Python, and its body fell into a fissure in the earth. It was from this fissure that Python emitted strong fumes as it decomposed. Apollo decided this was where his oracle would serve.
Before the Greeks claimed Delphi as their sacred place, archaeological evidence has shown that the site had a long history of human occupation. There is evidence of a Mycenaean (1600 B.C to 1100 B.C) settlement at the site, which may have contained an earlier temple to mother earth or the Goddess Gaia.
The Early History of Delphi
Construction of the temple that would house the oracle began in the 8th century. The temple at Delphi was built by priests of Apollo from Crete, which was then called Knossos. It was believed Apollo had a divine presence at Delphi, and so a sanctuary was built in his honor. The sanctuary was built on the Delphic fault.
Initially, scholars believed that the Delphic fault was a myth, but it was proven to be a fact in the 1980s when a group of scientists and geologists discovered that the temple ruins sat on not one, but two faults. The temple was built on the site where the two faults crossed.
The sanctuary was built around a sacred spring. It was because of this spring that the oracle was able to communicate with Apollo. The crossing of the two faults would have meant the site was prone to earthquakes, which would have created friction along the lines. This friction would have released methane and ethylene into the water which ran beneath the temple.
The path to the sanctuary called the Sacred Way, was lined with gifts and statues given to the oracle in return for a prophecy. Having a statue on the Sacred Way was also a sign of prestige for the owner because everyone wanted to be represented at Delphi.
The Sacred Wars Fought over the Oracle of Delphi
Initially, Delphi was under the control of the Amphictyonic League. The Amphictyonic League consisted of twelve religious leaders from the ancient tribes of Greece. Delphi was recognized as an autonomous state after the First Sacred War.
The First Sacred War began in 595 BCE when the neighboring state of Krisa disrespected the religious site. Accounts differ as to what actually happened to start the war. Some accounts claimed that the oracle of Apollo was captured, and the temple vandalized.
After the first Sacred War, the Oracle rose to prominence, and Delphi became a powerful city-state. There were five Sacred Wars, of which two were for the control of Delphi.
The Oracle of Delphi would give a prophecy for a donation. Those who wanted to get ahead in the queue could do so by making another donation to the sanctuary.
It was Delhpi’s autonomy that added to its lure, as Delphi was not beholden to any of the other Greek states. Delphi remained neutral in the war, and the sanctuary at Delphi was open to all who wished to visit.
The Oracle of Delphi and the Pythian Games
Apollo’s famed oracle was not the only appeal Delphi had. It was the site of pan-Hellenic games which were popular throughout ancient Greece. The first of these games, called the Pythian Games, was to mark the end of the First Sacred War. The games made Delphi not just a religious hub but a cultural one too.
The Pythian Games were held at Delphi during the summer months, once every four years.
Evidence of the games held at Delphi can be seen today, as the site contains the ruins of the ancient gymnasium where the games took place. The Pythian Games began as a musical contest but later added athletic contests to the program. Greeks from across the many city-states that made up the Greek Empire came to compete.
The games were held in honor of Apollo, afforded by the riches bestowed upon the oracle. In Greek mythology, the beginning of the games ties into Apollo’s killing of Python, Delphi’s original inhabitant. The story is that when Apollo killed Python, Zeus was unhappy and considered it a crime.
The games were then created by Apollo as penance for his crime. The winners of the games received a crown of laurel leaves, which were the same leaves the oracle burned before a consultation.
What Was the Oracle of Delphi Known For?
For centuries, the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was the highest-regarded religious institution throughout ancient Greece. Not much is known about the Pythia who were named oracles. They were all women from prestigious families of Delphi.
People from empires outside of Greece came to visit the Delphic oracle. People from ancient Persia and even Egypt made the pilgrimage to seek the wisdom of the Pythia.
The oracle would be consulted before any major state undertaking. Greek leaders sought the advice of the oracle before beginning a war or founding a new nation-state. The Delphic oracle is known for being able to predict future events, as communicated to her by the god Apollo.
How Did the Oracle at Delphi Deliver Predictions?
During the nine days every year that Pythia was to receive prophecies, she followed a ritual thought to purify her. In addition to fasting and drinking holy water, the Pythia bathed in the Castalian Spring. The priestess would then burn laurel leaves and barley meal in the temple as a sacrifice to Apollo.
From ancient sources, we know that the Pythia entered a sacred room called the adyton. The oracle sat on a bronze tripod seat close to a crack in the stone floor of the room that released noxious gasses. Once seated, the oracle would inhale the vapors escaping from the spring that ran beneath the temple.
When Pythia inhaled the vapors, she entered into a trance-like state. According to Greek mythology, the vapors that the oracle inhaled came from the decomposing body of Python, who had been slain by Apollo. In reality, the fumes were caused by tectonic movement along the Delphic fault, which released hydrocarbons into the stream below.
It was during the trans-like state induced by the vapors, that the god Apollo communicated with her. The priests interpreted the prophecies or predictions and delivered the message from Apollo to the visitor.
How the oracle relayed the answers given to her from the god Apollo is contested. We rely on early works written by Plutarch for much of what we know about it.
Some sources described the oracles’ prophecies as being spoken in dactylic hexameters. This means that the prediction would be spoken rhythmically. The verse would then be interpreted by the priests of Apollo and relayed to the person seeking the answer to a question.
What Did the Oracle at Delphi Predict?
The prophecies the oracles provided often made little sense. They were reportedly delivered in riddles and usually took the form of advice rather than predictions of the future.
During the hundreds of years that the many Pythia who bore the title of oracle, made predictions at Delphi, several of these predictions were recorded by ancient scholars. Interestingly, there are genuine cases where the predictions of the oracle came true.
Solon of Athens, 594 B.C.E.
One of the most well-known early predictions from Pythia was made about the founding of democracy in Athens. A lawmaker from Athens called Solon visited the Pythia twice in 594 BCE.
The first visit was for wisdom surrounding his planned capture of the Island of Salamis, and the second was for constitutional reforms he wished to introduce.
The oracle told him the following on his first visit;
First sacrifice to the warriors who once had their home in this island,
Whom now the rolling plain of fair Asopia covers,
Laid in the tombs of heroes with their faces turned to the sunset,
Solon followed what the oracle advised and successfully captured the island for Athens. Solon again visited the oracle to seek advice about the constitutional reforms he wished to introduce.
The oracle told Solon:
Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Athens. Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city.
Solon interpreted this to mean he should steer away from his current course of action and avoid becoming a rebellious tyrant. Instead, he introduced reforms that benefited the population. Solon introduced a trial by jury and taxation proportional to income. Solon forgave all prior debts, which meant the poor were able to rebuild their lives.
Solon required all magistrates to swear an oath to uphold the laws he had introduced and maintain justice. If they failed to do so, they had to build a statue of the Oracle of Delphi, equal to their weight in gold.
King Croesus of Lydia, an Arrogant Interpretation
Another prediction that came to pass was given to the King Croesus of Lydia, now a part of modern-day Turkey, in 560 B.C.E. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, King Croesus was among the wealthiest men in history. Because of this, he was also extremely arrogant.
Croesus visited the oracle to seek advice about his planned invasion of Persia and interpreted her response arrogantly. The oracle told Croesus if he invaded Persia, he would destroy a great empire. Indeed the destruction of a great empire took place, but it was not the empire of Persia. Instead, it was Croesus who was defeated.
The Oracle at Delphi and the Persian Wars
One of the most famous predictions made by the oracle, refers to the Persian Wars. The Persian Wars refer to the Greco-Persian conflict fought between 492 B.C.E. and 449 B.C.E. A delegation from Athens traveled to Delphi in anticipation of the impending invasion by the son of Darius the Great of Persia, the venerable Xerxes. The delegation wanted to receive a prediction about the outcome of the war.
Initially, the Athenians were unhappy with the oracle’s response as she told them unequivocally to retreat. They consulted her again. The second time she gave them a much longer answer. The Pythia referred to Zeus as providing the Athenians with a “wall of wood” that would protect them.
The Athenians argued about what the oracle’s second prediction meant. Eventually, they decided Apollo had meant for them to ensure they had a sizable fleet of wooden ships to defend them from the Persian invasion.
The oracle proved correct, and the Athenians successfully repelled the Persian attack in the naval battle of Salamis.
The Oracle of Delphi was also consulted by Sparta, who Athens had called upon to help them in their defense of Greece. Initially, the Oracle told the Spartans not to fight, for the attack was coming during one of their most sacred religious festivals.
However, King Leonidas disobeyed this prophecy and sent an expeditionary force of 300 soldiers to help defend Greece. They were all killed at the Battle of Thermopylae, a legendary ancient tale, though this helped ensure Greece’s later victory at Salamis, which all but ended the Greco-Persian Wars.
Does the Oracle of Delphi Still Exist?
The Oracle of Delphi continued to make predictions until about 390 BCE when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned pagan religious practices. Theodosius banned not only the ancient Greek religious practices but also the Panhellenic games.
At Delphi, many of the ancient pagan artifacts were destroyed, for Christian inhabitants to settle on the sacred site. For centuries Delphi was lost to the pages and stories of ancient history.
It was not until the early 1800s that Delphi was rediscovered. The site had been buried under a town. Today, pilgrims in the form of tourists still make the trek to Delphi. Although visitors may not be able to commune with the gods, the remnants of the sanctuary of Apollo can be seen.