Fire is all consuming. So easily started, so often uncontrollable in the dry, hot conditions of Greece. In the late eighth century BC, c. 730, fire took hold of Delphi. It spread through the small community clinging to the Parnassian hillside, leaving destruction in its wake. As the smoke ebbed away, as the charred timbers finally began to cool, and as Delphi’s inhabitants began to come to terms with the extent of their loss, Delphi’s precarious position in the Greek world must have felt even more fragile.

We know that the maison noire—the house recently discovered by excavators just to the east of the later temple of Apollo at Delphi—burned to the ground a second time (it definitely earned its name) in this fire.1 The French archaeologist Jean-Marc Luce, who conducted the excavation of the maison noire, ties this destruction to the accounts in later ancient sources of a raid on Delphi by the Phlegyians, whom, according to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (lines 277–80), were people from one of the places Apollo had visited as a potential home for his oracle, and were said in later sources not only to have raided but to have set fire to the temple of Apollo at Delphi (their name comes from the Greek verb “to burn”).2

Even if we are not willing to make such a close link between the literature and the archaeology, it is clear that the last thirty years or so of the eighth century BC were a dynamic time in Delphi’s history, quite apart from its fiery destruction. The settlement during the eighth century had grown considerably, covering most of the area of the later Apollo sanctuary. By Iron Age standards, Delphi was, at century’s end, a large and important site in its own right. But it was not the only settlement that developed in the area at this time. In fact, in the last quarter of the eighth century BC, a number of new sites seem to have been established across the Itean plain, helping to connect Delphi—somewhat isolated high up on the mountainside—to the other old settlements along the coast (such as Medeon; see map 3).3 One of these new sites—now the modern town of Amphissa—was founded at the foot of the most easily accessible corridor through the mountains to the north. A northern presence has been noted at Delphi since its earliest history, and its links to Thessaly may have been part of the reason for Corinth’s expansion into the area at the beginning of the eighth century as it sought to exploit these connections for trading purposes. Now, in the last quarter of the eighth century, the tables were turned. The increasingly strong trading network with Thessaly and the North, fueled by Corinthian interest and facilitated by the development of new settlements along the route, acted as a catalyst for Delphic growth. Whereas Corinth may have originally come to Delphi to feed off its northern contacts, now Delphi was feeding off the increasingly strong north-south trading network. This whole area of the Phocian coast was increasingly drawn into a pattern of trading traffic, extending from across the Gulf of Corinth, through the Itean plain, north to Thessaly, and even into the Balkans (see maps 1, 2). And Delphi seems to have benefited most. By the beginning of the seventh century BC, other, previously more affluent settlements on the coast, such as Medeon, were suffering thanks to Delphic expansion. Delphi had begun to warp the local landscape, a process that would eventually lead to the total decline of its local competitors.4

Yet Delphi was expanding not only thanks to its place in an increasingly affluent and important trading network. The excavations have revealed a vast increase in objects in the last quarter of the eighth century BC that can be securely tied to cult activity. This expansion was both in terms of type (new kinds of tripod dedications) and also origin. Attic and Cretan metalwork, for example, began to arrive at the site, and pottery, which had been overwhelmingly Corinthian, was now coming from Achaia, Attica, and Boeotia as well as from Euboea, Thessaly, and Argos. It was also in the last quarter of the eighth century BC that the Corycian cave, seemingly abandoned since the fourteenth century BC, received material again, which was increasingly votive in character, suggesting the establishment of the cave as a rural shrine.5

Delphi at the end of the eighth century BC thus seems to have taken a quantum leap, both as a settlement on an increasingly affluent trade network, and as a place of cult activity that attracted an increasing variety of rich offerings associated with a widening number of important civic centers themselves in the throes of ever-rapid social and political change. How these two aspects affected one another, we may never know in detail. Did Delphi’s position in a trade network help bring the settlement to the attention of more long-distance civic centers that in turn began to deposit increasingly rich offerings at the sanctuary’s hitherto local (and still very much unelaborated) cult center? Or should we see the two as relatively independent, with Delphi’s increasingly international cult activity more the result of the growing fame of, and need for, its (perhaps long-established or perhaps only recently instituted) oracle?

No archaeological evidence exists to prove there was a functioning oracle at Delphi at any time up to the late eighth century BC (and it is difficult, if not impossible, in these early periods, to distinguish between what is a “secular” and what is a “cult” object). As we saw at the end of the last chapter, some scholars argue for the possibility of a local oracle existing at Delphi all the way back into the second millennium BC. Others argue that the arrival of tripod dedications from the end of the ninth century and the beginning of the eighth signifies an oracular presence (based on the tripod as a symbol of the oracle who, in later representations, sat on a tripod when giving her responses).6 Others argue for the oracle’s inception, and certainly its growth (or rather the beginning of its use not just by locals but by elites of different states) in the last quarter of the eighth century. Their reasoning is based largely on linking the sudden increase at Delphi in this period to the many elite/state level offerings given for consultation with the oracle, although again the link is considered by some not to be without its problems.7 In short, we cannot, with the present archaeological evidence, prove the date of the origin of Delphi’s oracle, or, in more positive terms, as the French archaeologist Jean-Marc Luce has put it, the “question remains open.”8

But the observable quantum leap that Delphi underwent in the late eighth century and on into the seventh century does coincide with a growing need identified by several scholars among the developing political communities in Greece for new ways of solving emerging community problems (which the oracle may have provided), and with the many literary and historical sources that focus on the oracle’s increasingly important role in three major aspects of the development of Greek society during the late eighth–sixth centuries BC: colonization, constitutional reform, and tyrannical power. Thus while we cannot prove when the oracle at Delphi started, we can investigate the extent to which, from the late eighth century, it seems to have acquired a new kind of purpose as well as audience.

There was a tremendous amount of change and growth in Greek society during the eighth century. By its end, the resultant increased opportunity and dynamism within the organization of different communities had created a significant amount of social instability. The seventh century would provide no letup. Fundamental to the process was the continued development of community self-definition, which led, in turn, to a variety of changes in the nature of warfare (the development of the hoplite phalanx based on cohesive group attack rather than on individual elite warriors); the nature and regulation of power exercised within political communities (the development of civic constitutions as an attempt to referee the power play between community elites and the emergence of an individual elite, tyrannical ruler); the expansion of communities into new landscapes (through trade, force, and active foundation); and a more clearly articulated set of relationships between the human and the divine (the development of identifiable myths, theinvestment in sanctuaries, the development of human figure sculpture and stone temples).9

Surviving within this increasingly dynamic and unstable melting pot often required a response from developing communities to problems not encountered before. Within a world that was, at the same time, firmly of the belief that the gods were in charge of everything, the attraction of a system of oracular consultation, which allowed for divine confirmation of community decisions, and therefore the ability to ensure the development of a consensus of opinion for particular courses of action, is eminently understandable.10 That is, the oracle at Delphi—whether a longtime local practice or a recent institution—came into focus and importance at this time because it provided a new solution ideally suited to the particular and unfamiliar circumstances created by Greek social and political development. Not as an instrument simply for “revealing the future,” but rather as an instrument for the adjudication of civic problems and the authorization of new solutions. As argued in the last chapter, we thus need to see the oracle at Delphi as more of a management consultant than a fortune-teller.

But before we look at the literary and historical evidence for consultation of the Delphic oracle during the late eighth and seventh centuries BC, we need once again to turn our attention to the warning label that comes with it. In most cases, the evidence for a particular consultation comes from sources dated several centuries after the consultation took place. At the same time, the events with which a consultation is associated are often themselves unclear and subject to metamorphosis in the different sources over time. As a result, a lake of scholarly ink has been spilled over the question of which consultations are “real” and which “fake,” or which have been expanded and reworked over time. Some scholars go so far as to judge as false all accounts of oracular consultation from this period. Others are happy to accept some but not all. In what follows, this middle course has been adopted, with the understanding that all the evidence, just as with Delphi’s earliest foundation myths, tells us as much about how Greeks of later centuries sought to understand Delphi’s early history than it does about the early history itself.11

Strongly supporting the picture of the Delphic oracle coming to international attention when it did as a new way of resolving new community problems and tension is the fact that the first communities posited in the literary sources (and which we can be fairly sure are historical) to consult the oracle were all in regions that were in some way exceptional in the pace and nature of their development and the circumstances they had to confront: Sparta, Corinth, and Chalcis in Euboea.12

Sparta has often been highlighted for its close connection with the Delphic oracle. Herodotus (6.57.2) tell us that Sparta had special advisors to its kings, called pythioi, who were responsible for the relations between the city and the oracle. At some point between the late eighth and mid-seventh century BC (the date is the subject of much dispute), a new constitution came into force in Sparta; known as the Great Rhetra, this constitution was, by the fifth century BC, associated directly with Sparta’s infamous lawgiver Lycurgus. This constitution is fundamental to understanding the unique nature of Spartan society: it regulated everything from the setting up of new temples, to the division of the Spartan population, the regulations of its council, and the power of its kings. Its adoption by Sparta, according to the later evidence for oracular consultation, was directly linked to approval from the Delphic oracle (who, in some versions, is even said to have dictated the constitution herself).13 But while we cannot know exactly the extent to which Delphi was involved, we do know, thanks to a surviving fragment of the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus from the mid-seventh centuryBC, that, already by this time, the Spartan link with Delphi was strong:

They heard the voice of Phoebus Apollo and brought home from Pytho the oracles of the god and words of sure fulfilment, for thus the lord of the silver bow, Far Shooting Apollo of the golden hairs, gave answers from out his rich sanctuary … for this has Phoebus declared unto their city in these matters.14

Indeed Sparta, it seems, from the evidence for further oracular consultations, was somewhat obsessed with the oracle, using it to confirm its social and political process, its pattern of oath swearing, and its system of land allotment. The oracle had even supposedly warned Spartans about their public morality and that their love of money would one day destroy them.15 Yet the sources also indicate that Sparta had involved the oracle in its decision to expand its territory through conquest in what have become known as the first and second Messenian Wars (the second half of the eighth century through the first quarter of seventh century BC), resulting in the annexation of Messenia by Sparta and the subjugation of its native population as Spartans slaves, or helots. The surviving sources tell of oracular consultations at key points in the campaign: on the justification for its commencement, and on how best to improve their fortunes during (both the first and second) war.16 Yet what is fascinating here is that Delphi also seems to have been consulted by the other side, Messenia, in both of these conflicts: on how best to maximize its chances of victory, on how to conduct itself during the war, and with desperate requests for tips on salvation as the end drew near (such help was not forthcoming).17 The association between Sparta and the oracle about the former’s expansion plans continued during Sparta’s later attempt to take all of Arcadia, with the oracle consulted at the outset of the campaign and throughout, regarding revision of its goals and the best ways to proceed.18

For Corinth, whose economic and trading influence swept over Delphi and the surrounding region during the eighth century, the oracle provided a very different sort of management consultant role. Sometime in the first half of the seventh century BC, the Bacchiad ruling family of Corinth was confronted with a perhaps unsolicited warning from the oracle that they should take note of a “lion, strong and flesh-eating” who was to be born from an eagle. Sometime later, a man, Aetion, consulting the oracle on his inability to produce a child, was warned that his wife would conceive and that the baby would be a “rolling stone, which will fall upon the absolute rulers and will exact justice from Corinth.” In the second half of the seventh century, when that child, Cypselus, was on the brink of seizing power as tyrant of Corinth, he was greeted by the oracle with another warning: “blessed is the man who enters my house, Cypselus, son of Aetion, king of famous Corinth, he himself and his sons, but his sons’ sons [i.e., his grandchildren] no longer.”19

Cypselus was not the first tyrant, or the last the oracle would seemingly foresee, encourage, and warn. In the late seventh century BC, the oracle was involved with a tyrannical coup in Athens by a man called Cylon. After consulting on the best way to achieve power, he was at first said to have misunderstood the oracle’s response to attack during Zeus’s great festival, which Cylon took to mean the Olympics. Eventually, however, Cylon secured power when he realized the oracle was referring to Zeus’s great festival in Athens.20

Delphi’s relationship with tyrants within Greece is often compared to its involvement with rulers in Asia Minor at this time. This involvement dates back to the legendary king Midas of Phrygia who was said, by Herodotus (1.14), to have dedicated at Delphi the royal chair upon which he sat to give judgment. But the oracular relationship really began with the slightly later king of Lydia, Gyges, in the late eighth century BC. The oracle was said to have arbitrated a dispute over the kingship of Lydia in Gyges’ favor, again with a warning that his fifth descendant would be punished for the way in which Gyges had taken power.21 In return (or perhaps in advance of this favorable oracle), Gyges was said to have showered Delphi with rich gold and silver offerings. In the late seventh century BC, this relationship with eastern kings continued in the form of King Alyattes, who consulted the oracle after he fell ill during a military campaign; the oracle refused to help until Alyattes rebuilt a temple he had destroyed on campaign. When Alyattes complied and the oracle brought him back to good health, Alyattes thanked the oracle by showering the temple with silver and iron dedications, one of which survived long enough to be seen by Pausanias in the second century AD.22

Delphi’s relationship with tyrants, themselves a product of the fast-changing political system of the eighth and seventh centuries BC, has caused much controversy. Some scholars query the reliability of oracular responses that seem to contain unsolicited warnings and pronouncements, in place of a direct response to a question asked.23 Others point to the way in which the literary traditions suggest a rebranding of Delphic responses over time. In later centuries, by which time tyrannical power had come to have the negative connotations it still does today, many of the ancient sources seemed keen to recategorize Delphi’s interactions with these strong-men as foreseeing their coming, but paying them scant courtesy when they did.24 However, such a changing picture of Delphic involvement does not mean we should discard the evidence for these consultations; rather, as the historian Irad Malkin has argued, we should imagine an oracle that embraced social and political change and moved (opportunistically) with the times, supporting new social and political ideas with the necessary redefining of its past involvement that this inevitably entailed as such ideas came and went out of fashion.25 That is to say, as the world changed, so did the oracle. Thus, Malkin suggests, Delphi managed to become a force for change and innovation in social and political issues, and, because it always seemed to be on the “right” side, to eventually gain a reputation as a sort of elder statesman, thereby becoming a guarantor and arbiter of social order.26

In the late eighth century BC, Chalcis is said to have been involved in the Lelantine War with its nearby rival Eretria, on the island of Euboea (see map 2). The duration, nature, and even historicity of this war is open to debate, but, by the fifth century BC, Thucydides (1.15.3) marked it as the only conflict between the Trojan and Persian Wars in which Greeks came together to fight in multicommunity groups, that is to say, as larger unified elements. This seemingly epic struggle by eighth-century standards, over the boundaries of the Chalcidian and Eretrian communities and thus the ownership of the fertile Lelantine plains, may be seen as a result of processes of community self-definition, internal political instability, and population pressure omnipresent in the eighth century, and may help explain why Chalcis was said to have been drawn to consulting the oracle at Delphi over the question of founding new settlements elsewhere by the end of the eighth century (that of Rhegion and slightly later of Zankle in southern Italy; see map 1).27

The involvement of the oracle at Delphi with this process of “colonization,” during the eighth–sixth centuries BC, has been the subject of more intense discussion than perhaps any other aspect of the oracle’s business (see map 1). At stake has been everything from the form of oracular involvement to the existence of the process of colonization itself. Scholars, particularly historian Robin Osborne, have been at pains to stress the problem of using the term “colonization,” which suggests the nature of the Greek experience as akin to British colonial colonization. In place of such an organized territorial land grab, Osborne advocates seeing the number of new foundations around the Mediterranean in this period as “a manifestation of an exceptional degree of restlessness and ambition among individual Greeks. Some settlers will have been pushed by poverty, unpopularity, crime, or scandal; some will have jumped to get land, a foothold in foreign mineral resources, or just a new life free of irksome relatives.”28

Such a variety of motivation is clearly crucial for understanding this complex process, as is, once again, the mutability of the literary record, which often offers not only a changing history of Delphic involvement, but also multiple, sometimes conflicting, versions of the responses, alongside a number of, famous, ambiguous riddlelike answers. The oracle is said to have suggested that a fish would point the way, and a boar lead the way, to those founding Ephesus. Aegae, the old capital of Macedon, was to be founded on the spot where its founder first saw goats. Over the foundation of Gela in Sicily, the record is split between an oracle that told a consultant who laughed to found a place called Gela (linked to the Greek for “to laugh”), and another source suggests the oracle told them to settle near a river called Gela. When Archias of Corinth consulted the oracle on the subject of founding a new settlement (Syracuse) c. 735 BC, it is said he was told to find Ortygia, which “lies in the sea on Trinakria, where Alpheius gushes forth mingling with the spring Arethusa.” Such a reply, preserved in Pausanias (5.7.3), requires the belief that the river Alpheius in the Peloponnese somehow flows under the ocean all the way to Sicily to mix with the waters of the local spring. But yet another source (Strabo 6.2.4) suggests that the founders of Croton and Syracuse were allotted their locations on the basis of one prioritizing health and the other money.29

Herodotus gives two different versions of oracular involvement in the founding of Cyrene in North Africa at the end of the seventh century BC—one emphasizes the role of the inhabitants of the island of Thera (and is believed by the Therans), and the other attributes the founding to the individual Battus (seemingly preferred by the Cyreneans).30 Further versions are found in other authors as well, and the story is complicated even more by the epigraphic evidence, as the Cyreneans in the fourth century BC erected steles relating to the granting of citizenship to Therans and to the institutionalization of their sacred laws, both of which were tied to the original founding and to the involvement of the oracle.31

The difficulty in assessing this complex and conflicting mass of evidence has led to some deep divisions over the nature of Delphi’s involvement in colonization, and thus the nature, development, and importance of the Delphic oracle in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. What is indisputable, however, is that, by the last third of the eighth century, the pace of Greek cities and individuals establishing settlements around the Mediterranean had increased substantially. In southern Italy and Sicily during this period, a new settlement was founded about every other year. The cities already involved in different ways with Delphi, like Chalcis, Corinth, and Sparta, all appear to have consulted on such settlements (including a lengthy to-ing and fro-ing between the Spartans and the oracle on the foundation of Taras and its subsequent health and political organization).32 But what also seems clear is that the history of the establishment of such settlements was an issue of recurring importance to both the new community, and its mother city, throughout their histories. It is, thus, no surprise that, as each developed, and the relationship between them changed, the foundation stories followed suit. In the sixth century BC, for example, intercolonial rivalry had developed to such an extent that colonies competed to have grander, older foundation stories and closer involvement with what was, by then, the prestigious institution of the oracle at Delphi. Croton, for example, even went so far as to put the oracular tripod on their first coinage.33 And in the fifth century BC, many mother cities seem to have wanted closer, more colonial-style ties to their communities, which resulted in a rebranding of their heavier involvement in the settlement and thus their interaction with the oracle.34

So, how much can we see through this haze of changing priorities and changing stories to understand the place of the oracle in this process of expanded settlement during the eighth and seventh centuries? Opinions are still divided. On the one hand, scholars like the historian Jean Defradas have argued that we cannot be sure of any role for the oracle in colonization before the sixth century BC.35 On the other hand, scholars like the historian George Forrest and the archaeologist Anthony Snodgrass have argued that the oracle acted from its inception as a clearing-house for the dissemination of geographical and political information to the widest possible audience, and was fundamental to the process of colonization.36 In between them is a whole spectrum of viewpoints.37 Yet I think we can sketch a timeline for the development of awareness across the ancient Greek world of the oracle’s importance to the colonial process, as well as a timeline for the development of its actual involvement. For the latter, it seems probable that the oracle was involved in questions of new settlement foundation from the mid-late eighth century BC, particularly settlements founded in Sicily and southern Italy by Greek cities such as Corinth, Chalcis, and Sparta. During the seventh century, the range of Greek cities and individuals consulting the oracle on such issues widened to more of mainland Greece and spread east through the Cyclades to Paros, Thera, and Rhodes. Similarly the location of the resulting foundations also spread to North Africa and, very infrequently, the Hellespont. By the late seventh century, inquiries about foundations were even coming from Asia Minor, although it has long been noted that the number of such inquiries at Delphi (as well as resulting foundations in the Hellespont and Black Sea area) were always low, perhaps because there was a closer oracular sanctuary (in Miletus) for consultation.38

In terms of the progression of Delphi’s reputation for involvement in this key process, scholars argue that a surviving fragment from the poet Callinus of Ephesus, of the first half of the seventh century BC, discussing the involvement of Pythian Apollo with the foundation of Colophon, suggests a recognition of Delphi’s place in the process by this time. In 734 BC, a shrine to Apollo Archegetos (Apollo “the Founder”) was established in the colony Naxos in Sicily. By the fifth century at the latest, this shrine was recognized (see Thucydides 6.3.1) as the place where all Sicilian cities were supposed to worship before setting out on their adventures. As a result, many have argued that the importance of Apollo as a god of “colonization,” and the connection between Apollo’s oracle at Delphi and colonization, at least for the Western Greek world, was assured by this time. In fact, we can be pretty sure such a connection was well known across the Greek world earlier in the sixth century BC. Herodotus (5.42) tells the story of Dorieus of Sparta who failed in his attempt to found a colony at Heracleia in Sicily. The failure was the result, everyone realized according to Herodotus’s narrative, of Dorieus’s having neglected to consult the Delphic oracle properly first.39

The picture painted here is of a Delphi gradually becoming involved in the ongoing process of new settlement foundation that gripped and expanded the Greek world in the eighth–sixth centuries BC. But it is, at the same time, also a picture of the reinforcement and expansion of that role for Delphi in the foundation process from the sixth century BC onward, as colonies and mother cities sought increasingly to reframe and often aggrandize their foundations and relationships by according often greater roles to a Delphi, which was, by that time, fully immersed in the center of the Greek world. Nothing breeds success like success. As the historian George Forrest put it, colonization thus did more for the spread of Delphi’s influence and prestige than Delphi did for colonization.40

As a result of these developments, the oracle at Delphi, by the end of the seventh century BC, was, with very little doubt, an increasingly crucial institution for an increasingly wide circle of Greek cities and their new foundations spread out across the Mediterranean world. The oracle had been consulted by kings in the East and by tyrants in mainland Greece, and by communities and individuals on issues as diverse as constitutional reform, war, land allotment, oaths, purification, and the avoidance of famine (and many more issues if you are inclined to believe all the stories).41 And yet, there is no evidence for any form of permanent temple of Apollo at Delphi for most of this time. The earliest possible date for such a structure at Delphi (the evidence for which is a few surviving roof tiles, and a couple of stone blocks) is 650–600 BC, with most scholars preferring the lower end of that register (approximately contemporary with the construction of the first temple of Hera at Olympia), although recent excavation has indicated we must revise that date even further, to the beginning of the sixth century BC (see the next chapter).42 This is to say, throughout this crucial period of development for the oracle, and for Delphi, we have no real idea where, and in what circumstances, the oracle was consulted.

So just what was it like to visit Delphi during this period? We left the sanctuary in the late eighth century as a place of significant settlement, having recently suffered fire destruction, and yet with increasing numbers of expensive metal (particularly) tripod dedications associated with cult activity arriving from a widening circle of Greek communities as far away as Crete. During the seventh century, the site continued as a place of settlement, mixed in with increasing cult activity. Over the burned remains of the maison noire, the maison jaune (the “yellow house”) was constructed. By the last quarter of the seventh century, this was replaced by the maison rouge (the “red house”) which seems to have been one of several in the area. This house was comprised of three rooms, one of which was used for cooking. The nature of the finds suggests a wealthy owner (bronze vessels, golden rivets for some objects), but also cult activity (libation phiale [small vessels] have been found).43 This house sat across what was later the boundary of the Apollo sanctuary, and its mixed sacred and secular use seems to sum up the indeterminate, unarticulated nature of what scholars presume was an early sacred area at the heart of the settlement that would later become the Apollo sanctuary.

As such, the settlement at Delphi, right through to the end of the seventh century BC (the house was not destroyed until the first quarter of the sixth century), seems to have been a melting pot of secular and sacred activity, with no properly defined or separated cult space (there is no evidence for a temenos wall marking out a sanctuary until the sixth century—see the next chapter). As Delphi’s oracle continued to grow in importance through the century, even allowing for much of that early reputation only having been generated in later centuries, consultants and dedicators, on making their way up the Parnassian mountainside to Delphi, may well have been surprised to find such an unelaborated cult site for such an (increasingly) important institution, especially in comparison with the many sanctuaries in different cities and civic territories, which had been monumentalized from the late eighth century onward (e.g., at Corinth, Perachora, and Argos, and on Samos).

This lack of monumental elaboration, even articulation, of Delphi’s sacred space through the seventh century is a crucial marker of three things. First, it underscores the importance of handling the literary sources with care to work out what Delphi was, as opposed to what it was later constructed to have been. Second, it reveals an important insight into the experience of early visitors to the site, especially in contrast to the sanctuaries at home. Third, it acts as crucial evidence for the generally late elaboration of sanctuaries, which would eventually become “Panhellenic”—sanctuaries common to all Greeks. These sacred spaces were less elaborate than sanctuaries within defined political territories because they were not the sole responsibility and territory of one community. But it was also precisely because of their indeterminacy of ownership, their “neutrality,” that scholars argue they were able to grow as spaces for use by a much wider range of Greek cities and states.44 This is to say, Delphi’s late elaboration was a(nother) sign of its crucial impending significance.

Despite that Delphi could offer little in the way of articulated or monumental sacred architecture through the seventh century (and, as it has been argued, to some extent, because it could not), it was the recipient of increasing numbers of offerings from number of individuals and cities. We have already seen how Kings Midas, Gyges, and Alyattes from the East were said to have dedicated at Delphi a throne as well as a series of gold, bronze, and iron vessels and objects. Yet what is fascinating is what the dedication of these objects tells us about how different contributors interacted with the sanctuary. As far as we can tell, for example, all the monumental dedications coming from the East (from this period and on into the sixth century) were located on the eastern side of the (latertemple of Apollo), in contrast to most other (monumental) dedications during the seventh and early sixth century, which gravitated toward the West (see plate 2). This has been explained as an eastern preference for the East, but also as a continuation of their traditional practice when making dedications at other sanctuaries (that is to say these eastern dedicators did what they were used to doing, without being influenced by what others were doing at Delphi).45

It was not only Eastern dedications that had their particular traits. During the seventh century BC, for example, Corinth does not seem to have continued with its dedication of bronze tripods, but only of pottery and, even then, only in the unelaborated sacred areas of the settlement. There is no Corinthian pottery in the maison rouge, for example, only locally made material.46 Yet, around the middle of the seventh century, the new tyrant of Corinth, Cypselus (who had been so involved with the oracle), constructed Delphi’s first (surviving) monumental dedication: a structure known as a treasury, because we think it was used as a treasure house to store other offerings (see plate 2).47 This treasury, constructed in a highly visible location on a sort of natural crest in the landscape on the steep hillside, facing toward what scholars think was (or at least became) the earliest entryway into the sacred area, would have acted, at a time when Delphi had no official boundary markers, as an early marker of the sacred space. Cypselus, not only fundamental to the story of the oracle, is crucial in the story of the elaboration of Delphi as a sanctuary.48

In contrast to Corinth, Attica (and, at its heart, Athens) had a slow start at Delphi. Though some Attic bronze offerings can be identified as from the late eighth century, the numbers are low throughout the seventh century when Athenian pottery is nowhere to be seen. But at the very end of the century (and gathering speed from then on), the Athenians seem to have copied Cypselus and constructed a small treasury on the west side of the later sanctuary. Laconia, on the other hand, despite the number of consultations that associate Sparta with the Delphic oracle, was limited in its offerings at the sanctuary throughout the century. And despite the trade routes between Delphi and the North, the number of objects found at the sanctuary from northern and western Greece is also low, especially when compared with the numbers of Macedonian and Balkan objects found at Olympia, which is, after all, much farther south.49

Yet other areas of mainland Greece seem better represented. Several Boeotian cauldrons have been found, and a significant supply of armor from the Argolid seems to have been dedicated (though the Argolid does not seem to have offered any vases or terra-cottas). This trend for Argolid dedication was capped at the end of the seventh century BC by the dedication of a pair of over-life-size statues, which have often been identified with one of Argos’s most famous myths, that of Cleobis and Biton (fig. 3.1).50 Cyprus is also well represented—with shields, inscribed tripods, a number of cauldrons, and even a bronze bull.51 So are Syria and Asia Minor, with lots of complex and beautiful cauldron decorations, ostrich eggs, glass human figurines, and even Phrygian belts (all found in recent excavations).Yet it is Crete that stands out, not only because of the number of tripods and shields, but also because of the way in which these offerings seem to be not isolated pieces but entire sets and series of dedications, and possibly even from the same area.52


Figure 3.1. The Argive twins dedicated at Delphi, sometimes identified as Cleobis and Biton or simply as the Dioscuri (© EFA [Guide du Musée fig. 2a])

Delphi, by 600 BC, may well have still been without a temple, or indeed any articulated, separated, sacred space, but it was, without doubt, already littered with offerings from the very small to the monumental, in a wide array of materials and styles, from a wide variety of dedicators. Once again, however, this material comes with a warning. While we label a piece “Cretan” because it is made in a style, procedure, or material we know to be associated with Crete, we cannot be sure that it was actually offered at the sanctuary by a Cretan, as opposed to its coming to the sanctuary via, say, a Corinthian trading network, or as the treasured possession of someone from outside Crete, or even as a prize dedicated by someone who was victorious over the Cretans in battle and took the piece as a victory trophy. Moreover, even some of the more monumental structures remain a mystery. A small, apsidal treasury-like structure was constructed around 600 BC in an area that would later be the temple terrace and even later be identified as the sanctuary of Gaia (see structure “B” in fig. 3.2). This, combined with its odd (and therefore supposedly religious) absidal-shaped end, as well as the literary myths about Delphi’s early association with Gaia, the mother goddess, have led to this structure’s often being called the Chapel of Gaia (as well as a possible early home for the omphalos). But in truth, there is not one shred of evidence that definitely connects this structure to Gaia. In reality, we simply have no idea who constructed it and why they did so.53

What we can do is begin to see increasing variation in the purpose and style with which different individuals, cities, and geographical areas interacted with Delphi in these crucial early phases of development. Not only in terms of their material offerings or trade connections, but by putting these together with the literary evidence for oracular consultation and mythical involvement, we can begin to have a more three-dimensional view of how Delphi was perceived in the wider Greek world, and the different ways in which the different parts of that world chose to interact (and were represented as interacting) with it. What this brings into focus is the way certain communities interacted with particular parts of Delphic cult activity, but not others. The Laconians, for instance, had a close and ongoing relationship with the oracle, but dedicated very few offerings at the sanctuary before the sixth century BC. In complete contrast was Crete. Cretans dedicated many expensive smaller offerings (tripods, shields, etc.), but (probably) not a single monumental offering. They did not consult the oracle, unless you count one individual Cretan asking about the omphalos, which is probably a later creation. Yet Crete was fundamentally tied to Delphi from the late seventh century through the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as Cretans became the first priests of Apollo’s temple.54 Even more interestingly, no Cretan tripods have been found at Olympia, a sanctuary with which Delphi is often compared, but which, from its earliest history, seems to have attracted something of a different clientele from Delphi and seems to have been a center for different priorities and interests.55


Figure 3.2. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi c. 550 BC (© EFA [Courby FD II Terrasse du Temple 1920–29 fig. 156]).

Coming into focus also through this three-dimensional approach to early Delphi are the players, and tensions, that would, in the early sixth century BC, rip Delphi apart and catapult it forward. The dominant players at Delphi by the end of the seventh century seem to have been Sparta, Corinth, Lydia in the east, and increasingly Attica. Particularly these mainland Greek cities and city-states were users of the oracle, and to different extents, dedicators of cult offerings. In contrast, the longer-term influence of Thessaly on the site is not reflected in Thessalian interest in either of these activities during the seventh century.56 Instead Delphi was changing, its focus turning from the trade corridor north toward the sea and land routes to the south, just as its livelihood seems to have become more dependent on the oracle and visitors to the sanctuary, who were themselves increasingly from polis city-states rather than older, ethnos political groupings (like Thessaly). Delphi itself was an increasingly rich settlement, full of treasures, its wealth now widely recognized and by now most probably the subject of one or more elaborate foundation stories. But, at the same time, Delphi had little architectural elaboration or protection, and was under the auspices of no major city. As the inhabitants of Delphi went about their business at the end of the seventh century, their treasures glistening in the sunlight in among their houses, few may have realized that there was a storm brewing. The great age of state activity in the Greek world was about to begin. Delphi, and its oracle, had, for a number of reasons, been turned into an increasingly crucial instrument in the dynamic and volatile processes of social and political change that Greece was undergoing, at the very moment when those processes were increasingly encouraging its constituents to butt heads. Delphi was a rich and unprotected place that many of these communities had a stake in. Who would try to claim it as their prize, and what would happen to Delphi as a result?

Gods! What may not come true, what dream divine,

If thus we are to drink the Delphic wine!

—Leigh Hunt, Epistle to Lord Byron on his departure for Italy and Greece (published in the Examiner 28th April 1816

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