THE ORACLE OF DELPHI

Culture, Travel

ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS AND PERHAPS THE GREATEST POLITICAL INFLUENCE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD 

There are many myths and legends about the sanctuary of Delphi, which in the eyes of the ancient Greeks was not only the “navel of the world” (omphalos) but also an essential part of Greek religion. The Oracle held unrivaled status and fascinated civilizations for almost a millennium. No important decisions were made without consulting the Oracle. With its ability to influence powerful individuals and great city-states, the Oracle at Delphi played a crucial role in the development of Western civilization.

The location alone is impressive because of its difficult access. About 100 miles northeast of Athens on a rocky ridge beneath Mount Parnassus, the site was rather unsuitable for human habitation and was a place reserved for the gods. According to legend, it is here where Apollo killed the monster Python, which was guarding the Oracle. From then on, he was worshiped at Delphi along with his mother Leto and his sister Artemis. Of course, there are other legends surrounding the origins of Delphi, the almighty Zeus is said to have released two eagles from the edge of the world in opposite directions to determine the center of the earth. After a long flight, the eagles’ paths crossed again, and Zeus threw down a stone to mark the point.

The enigmatic Delphic symbol “Ε” and three Delphic maxims of the Seven Sages were inscribed on a column in the pronaos, the porch before the temple:

ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣE ΑΥΤΟΝ (KNOW THYSELF) 

ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (NOTHING IN EXCESS)

ΕΓΓΥΑ, ΠΑΡΑ ΔΑΤΗ (SURETY BRINGS RUIN) 

The stone landed at Delphi, and the Greeks dedicated the place with a rock decorated with mysterious motifs and called it Omphalos. Other myths state that Gaia, the Mother Goddess of the earth, was the very first inhabitant of the sanctuary, long before Zeus and Apollo and was worshiped here between 1700 BC and 1400 BC. Gaia appointed the nymph Daphnis as her prophetess, who was also considered the first oracle of Delphi, and her son Pytho, a mighty serpent, guarded the site.

A small, still relatively insignificant settlement slowly developed around the holy site, lying on an important trade route from Corinth to northern Greece. The increasing trade of the 8th century BC led to Delphi being visited more and more and, in addition to the temples of Apollo and Athena, there were cultural facilities such as theaters and even a sports arena. Although there were several other well-known oracles, Delphi attracted visitors not only from all over the Greek world, but also from Asia Minor and Egypt. By the 5th century BC, Delphi had developed into the most famous sacred site in Greece.

Oracles were very important to the Greeks because they believed that the gods communicated with people directly through them, giving advice, conveying the outcome of a war or perhaps someone’s fate. Delphi’s great strength was its independence, since it was not affiliated with any of the then powerful city-states such as Athens, Sparta or Corinth, meaning it retained a certain neutrality and made it accessible to all. However, its growing wealth gave rise to all sorts of attacks, so it was protected and administered by a council called Amphictyony, composed of representatives of the twelve Greek tribal groups from all over Greece.

 Around 582 BC the first Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo, the God of music, harmony, light, healing and the ability to see the future. These competitions were part of the Panhellenic Games held to honor the gods and held every four years. They are considered a precursor to the Olympic Games. Records indicate that five different temples were built at Delphi throughout history. The first three temples probably predate the establishment of the Apollo cult in the 20th century BC. Although the site was devastated by fire in the 8th and 6th centuries BC, it was rebuilt thanks to generous donations and grew even larger as a result.   

The prestige and power of the oracle peaked between the 6th and 4th centuries BC and it was the prophetesses, the Pythias, who made it famous. Pythia, Ancient Greek: Πυθία was the name of the High Priestess of the Temple of Apollo. The name derives from Pytho, the original name of Delphi. The Greek word for “to rot” is pythein, and the origin of the name is believed to refer to the sickeningly sweet smell of the python’s decaying body after it fell into a crevasse, fatally struck by Apollo’s arrows.

Read the full article in Issue 18

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