Delphi, the most important religious center of ancient Greece, is located on the southern slopes of Mt. Parnassus, 2,000 feet above the Gulf of Corinth. Delphi was the site of a shrine to the god Apollo. Associated with the shrine was an oracle, or place of prophecy, which provided inspired advice from the god. Delphi was also the site of the Pythian Games, an athletic festival held every four years which was second only to the Olympics.
According to legend, Apollo himself built the shrine near a spring where he had killed a serpent called Python. He brought a ship’s crew from the island of Crete to serve as his priests. By the 700s B.C., Delphi was the most famous oracle in Greece. The ancient Greeks had great respect for the oracle and its predictions. Most Greek city-states belonged to an organization that maintained the temple housing the oracle. This organization could fine or even wage war on any member that showed disrespect to Apollo or his oracle. At the height of its popularity, people came from all over to ask the oracle at Delphi questions regarding personal, religious, or political matters. Greek city-states erected statues at Delphi to celebrate their military victories.
The precise details of the ceremonies at the oracle are not known, although the writer Plutarch, who was a priest at Delphi in the A.D. 100s, has given us some clues. Only men could enter the shrine of Apollo. Before entering the temple, the person seeking advice sacrificed a goat. If the omens* seemed right, the person then paid a fee— often an expensive cake—and was admitted to the adytum, or inner chamber of the temple, which was believed to be the center of the world. Inside the adytum, on a sacred three-legged stool, sat the Pythia, the female prophet who spoke for the god Apollo. The questioner, who could not see the Pythia, submitted his inquiry either orally or in writing. The Pythia then entered a trance, perhaps induced by eating bay leaves, and replied to the question. This divine response, which was also known as an oracle, was interpreted and recorded in verse by the Pythia’s attendants. Although the oracle was often ambiguous, it was rarely challenged.
The oracle at Delphi played an important role in many Greek myths. In this painting, Aegeus, the king of Athens, is consulting the oracle regarding his lack of children even though he had been married twice. As in many myths, the oracle’s response is unclear. Nevertheless, Aegeus later became the father of Theseus, the great Athenian hero.
The oracle handled a wide range of issues. Ordinary people came with personal or religious questions. Statesmen, such as the Athenian Solon, consulted the oracle before making decisions of peace and war. Emigrants visited the oracle before they set out to establish colonies abroad. According to legend, King Croesus of Lydia asked the Delphic oracle whether he should wage war on Persia. The oracle replied that, if he did, he would destroy a great empire. Encouraged by this response, Croesus declared war against Persia, and lost. The empire he destroyed was his own. When Croesus complained that he had been misled, the Pythia replied that she was not to blame, since the king should have inquired which kingdom she meant.
* omen sign, good or bad, of future events
After 300 B.C., the influence of the oracle in political matters slowly declined, although individuals still asked it for personal advice. When the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate tried to revive paganism* in the A.D. 300s, he sent a representative to ask the advice of the oracle at Delphi. The response indicates that the oracle of Apollo (here he is referred to as Phoebus) had fallen on hard times: “Tell the king, the monumental hall has fallen to the ground. Phoebus no more has a hut, has no prophetic bay, no speaking stream. Even the voice of the water is quenched.” The Roman emperor Theodosius closed the oracle in A.D. 390. The ruins at Delphi, however, remain a spectacular tourist destination even today. (See also Cults; Divinities; Religion, Greek.)
* paganism belief in more than one god; non-Christian