Who is the Delphic Oracle, and why was it so important to the ancient Greeks
Who is the Delphic Oracle, and why was it so important to the ancient Greeks

Many have probably heard the word "oracle", but few attached importance to it, not really delving into the very essence. But for the ancient Greeks - the oracle was much more than just a person who knew how to predict the future. The transmission of divine knowledge from god to mortal, also known as divination, played an important role in ancient Greek religion. Divination took various forms, from studying sacrificial entrails to interpreting the flight of birds. But perhaps the most important form of divination was the practice of consulting God through an intermediary, and this intermediary was known as the oracle.

Oracular consultations were held at permanent sites and shrines scattered throughout Ancient Greece. The king of the gods, Zeus, had prestigious oracles at both Olympia and Dodona. There were also the oracles of Apollo in Didyma, in Asia Minor and on the island of Delos. However, the most famous and durable of these was the Delphic Oracle of Apollo.

Greece population map. \ Photo: carte-du-monde.net

The Delphic Oracle has fascinated civilizations for millennia both as an institution and as a concept. There are many ancient sources that refer to the oracle, from the poet of the 5th century BC. NS. Pindar to a geographer of the 2nd century A.D. NS. Pausanias. Delphi also captivated later artists and writers. Lord Byron even left some graffiti on the stones of the gymnasium when he visited the site in 1809. All this literary attention underscores the importance of Delphi, but why exactly did they hold such a special position in the ancient Greek world?

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi is now the ruins of an ancient Greek temple. \ Photo: google.com

Any visitor to Delphi today will be amazed at its wonderful location. As the fog dissipates and the sacred ruins reveal themselves to curious wanderers, there is a tangible sense of the otherworldly. It is not difficult to understand why the ancient Greeks called it “the navel of the Earth”.

One story tells how Zeus released two eagles, one from each end of the Earth. At the point where the eagles crossed, he threw a stone to determine the center of the earth. The stone has landed at Delphi. This stone is believed to be represented by a mysterious marker found at the site known as the omphalos (omphalos), or umbilical stone. However, some ancient sources claim that this stone was in fact a marker for the tomb of Dionysus.

Omphalos stone from Delphi of the Hellenistic era. \ Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

Located on a rocky ridge under Mount Parnassus, Delphi is a place that defies human settlement. After all, according to legend, it belongs to the gods. The sources vary greatly in the origin of Delphi. Some argue that Gaia, the mother goddess of the Earth, was the first inhabitant, long before Apollo. This ancient lineage gave a certain level of prestige to this place.

Despite its high mythological origin, it is likely that Delphi was originally a small settlement. However, the city was located on an important trade route from Corinth to Northern Greece. In the 8th century BC, the increased level of trade around Greece made Delphi more visited. By the 5th century BC, the Delphic Oracle had become the most famous sacred site in Greece.

Silver Greek coin issued by Amphiktyonia depicting Demeter and Apollo seated on an omphale, 4th century BC NS. \ Photo: google.com

One of the many reasons why Delphi became so important was their independence. The location of Delphi in Greece meant that they were not associated with any of the large and powerful city-states such as Athens, Sparta or Corinth.This allowed the city to remain neutral, which, in theory at least, made its safe haven accessible to everyone.

In addition, Delphi's importance and growing wealth made the city a target for attacks from time to time. But he was protected and ruled by a council known as Amphictyony. This council consisted of representatives from all over Greece. Key members included representatives from Thessaly, Athens and Sicyon. Amphiktyony has played an important role in the growth of the sanctuary over the centuries.

Red-figured drinking bowl depicting Pythia giving advice at Delphi, 5th century BC NS. \ Photo: co.pinterest.com

Access to the Oracle was actually very limited. It was available for consultation only on one day of each month. For three months of the year, in winter, there was no consultation. It was believed that this was because Apollo was looking for a warmer climate during the colder months. Therefore, consultations were only possible for nine days a year.

Even during those nine days, a further process was going on to determine if Apollo was happy to receive a consultation. Cold water was sprinkled on the sacrificial goat. If the goat shudders, it means that Apollo has given his consent, and the day can go according to plan.

On every day of consultations, there was a line of people who wanted to ask their question and get an answer to it. And all these people had to cleanse themselves in the spring water near the sanctuary. The first were the Delphians, followed by the people who had their representative in Amphictyony, and then all the other Greeks. Non-Greeks were the last to be admitted.

Everyone who came to the Oracle had to pay money and offer pelanos, a kind of sacrificial cake, before the consultation. Another sacrifice was burned as an offering to all the gods, as well as the inhabitants of Delphi. After the passed ceremony, each of the queue could meet with the priestess of Apollo, otherwise known as the Pythia and the Delphic oracle.

Bronze rod tripod similar to the one used at Delphi by the Pythia, 6th century BC. \ Photo: zone47.com

Unfortunately, little is known about the Pythias, except that all the oracles had to be Delphic women from respected families. Once chosen, they will serve a lifetime. By the 4th century BC, the Pythia was constantly living in the house at the sanctuary. During the days of consultations, she bathed in the Kastalsky spring near the sanctuary. Then she went to the temple, where she burned an offering to Apollo of bay leaves and barley flour.

Obviously, Delphi's greatest attraction was the fact that they opened access, albeit indirectly, to the god Apollo. The Homeric hymn to Apollo, written around the 7th century BC, explains Apollo's connection with Delphi. In search of a place for his oracle, he eventually settled on Delphi because of the beauty of their location. But first, he had to defeat the monstrous dragon that lived nearby. After killing the dragon with his arrows, he left his body to rot in the scorching sun. The Greek word for rot means pythein, and it is believed that this is where the name Pythia originated. The city of Delphi was formerly known as Python in the Bronze Age.

Oracle, John Collier. \ Photo: pinterest.ru

Sources vary widely on what happened next. By all accounts, the Pythia received counselors while sitting on a tripod in the interior of the temple. Later ancient sources mention an abyss in the floor of the temple. From this hole, apparently, some kind of steam rose, which the Pythia inhaled. She then went into a kind of trance and spoke the divine words of Apollo.

But there are other versions of this story. Alcaus, a lyricist of the 7th century BC, recounts how Zeus ordered Apollo to establish an oracle at Delphi. Aeschylus has another version, who in his tragic play "Eumenides" explains that Apollo inherited Delphi from Gaia.

Apollo and Python, William Turner, 1811. \ Photo: spenceralley.blogspot.com

The stories may vary, but the end point of each version is to establish the place of the prophecy in Delphi. Apollo is well known as the Greek god of prophecy with the ability to foresee the future. However, it may be more accurate to describe the Delphi consultation as a transmission of divine advice.

Those wishing to get an answer to their question visited Delphi with inquiries both from individuals and on behalf of entire city-states. The most common requests for help from people were about personal issues such as marriage and job prospects.Sometimes they wondered if it was worth embarking on a long and dangerous journey. Requests for cures for diseases and ailments were also common.

A rare example of a white soil bowl depicting the god Apollo drinking a libation at Delphi, 480-70. BC NS. \ Photo: neoskosmos.com

People who visited the Delphic Oracle on behalf of their city often sought advice on serious disputes between communities. The cities also wanted to know if Delphi would be favorable to the development of their colonies abroad. The rise of Delphi, especially in the 6th century BC, coincided with the rise of democracy and the growth of urban areas throughout Greece. One of Delphi's most important strengths was their ability to help establish law and order. Thus, the Delphic Oracle became one of the main links and advisers in the development of the Greek world.

An inscription on a stele dedicated to Plutarch by the inhabitants of Delphi, circa 100 AD. NS. \ Photo: yandex.ua

The form of Apollo's responses through the Pythia is one of the most hotly debated topics for the scientists of Delphi. Plutarch was a philosopher of the 1st century AD and also a priest of Apollo at Delphi. He talked about how the Pythia's answers were known for their ambiguity during the heyday of Delphi. Some describe her words as riddles that were to be interpreted by the recipients. Others call them a form of hexametric poetry.

Some scholars believe that the priests who worked with the Pythia helped in the interpretation process. But this cannot be conclusively proven. It is also unclear if the responses were recorded and then passed on to recipients for interpretation. Clearly, in its ambiguity, the Oracle emphasized the fact that divine words were originally incomprehensible to mortals. They could not be perceived directly, divine wisdom had to be carefully interpreted first.

Marble bust of Herodotus, 2nd century AD NS. \ Photo: pinterest.com

Throughout Delphi's history, there have been many who have been deceived by the Oracle's ambiguity. Herodotus, writing History in the 5th century BC, recounts some fascinating episodes of misinterpretation at Delphi. Perhaps the most famous of these is Croesus, the incredibly wealthy king of Lydia.

Croesus attempted to test the Delphic Oracle by asking him to say what he was doing at a certain point in time in Lydia. The oracle correctly answered that Croesus cut a turtle and a lamb and then placed them in a bronze cauldron. Emboldened by such precision, Croesus asked the Oracle if he would be successful in his military campaign against Persia. The oracle replied that Croesus would "destroy the great empire." Croesus contemptuously suggested that this meant he would be successful. He failed to understand that this great empire was in fact his own, and he was soon enslaved by the Persians.

Red-figured vase depicting the defeated Croesus on his funeral pyre before he was rescued by Apollo, 5th century BC NS. \ Photo: cig-icg.gr

By dealing with arrogant individuals in this way, no matter how important they were, the Oracle asserted his authority. Examples such as Croesus served as a warning to others. The Delphic Oracle did not like manipulation and careless interpretations.

By the 5th century BC, Delphi had become the most important oracular sanctuary in Greece. It attracted visitors from all over the Greek world and beyond, from places like Asia Minor and Egypt. Around 590 BC, the first Pythian Games were also held at Delphi in honor of Apollo. These sports have become one of the great Panhellenic Games-Festivals in Greece and have taken place in the arena alongside the Olympic Games.

Reconstruction of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi by Albert Turner, 1894. \ Photo: michaelscottweb.com

One of the reasons Delphi were able to build their reputation and become so important was their growing wealth. This place was devastated by fire in the 8th and 6th centuries BC. But, thanks to very generous support and donations, large and better sacred buildings were subsequently built. These included the huge Temple of Apollo, as well as numerous buildings of the city treasury.

Delphi's wealth came from donations and dedication made by individuals and city-states. Many of these offerings came from the kings of the East.The large number of these foreign initiates reflected the international importance of the Oracle. Croesus of Lydia, for example, donated a solid gold lion statue and large bowls of gold and silver.

Bronze statue of the charioteer, 470BC NS. \ Photo: wordpress.com

Among the most famous dedications were two statues of the archaic style, donated by the city of Argos at the end of the 7th century BC. These statues are considered either the twins Castor and Pollux, or the brothers Cleobis and Biton. Cleobis and Biton belonged to the Argive myth, in which they showed great devotion to both their mother and the goddess Hera.

Another incredible offering was made by Hieron I, the tyrant of Syracuse. In 470 BC, Hieron won the chariot race at the Pythian Games. In gratitude to Apollo, he dedicated a life-size bronze chariot with four horses and a charioteer. To date, only the charioteer has been found. Today, the statue takes pride of place in a museum in Delphi.

Delphi, Greece. \ Photo: grekomania.ru

The beautiful statues and precious objects in Delphi reflect the desire of people and cities to stay in the sanctuary all the time. For the ancient Greeks, Delphi was more than just a sacred place. The Oracle held an unrivaled position in society that lasted for over a thousand years. Delphic oracle, possessing the ability to influence powerful people, as well as large city-states, played a decisive role in the development of Western civilization.

The world is amazing and beautiful, and also full of not fully understood things that have been controversial and criticized for centuries. Mesoamerican civilization was no exception, and as soon as it comes up, historians and scientists immediately have a desire to enter into another discussion, putting forward their theory.

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