Suitcase and World: Delphi

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Ruins at Delphi (Photo by Runner1928)

Given Greece's long history, I was truly surprised to find out how few ruins there are; I was expecting far more. So, even though we won't be finalizing our Greece itinerary for a few more months but I've already decided that a visit to see the ruins at Delphi is a must.

Archeologists believe that Delphi was first settled in Mycenaean times in the late Bronze Age (14th - 11th centuries BC) by small settlements who were dedicated to the Mother Earth deity.  Delphi was also considered to be the omphalos (literally, the center or  navel) of the world.  According to Greek mythology, Zeus released two eagles, sending one to the east and the other to the west and Delphi was the point at which they met.

Some time between the 11th and 9th centuries BC, Delphi took on its religious significance as a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of Apollo who was believed to have killed a snake, Python, here. The sanctuary was originally named Pytho, after the snake and there is a temple specifically dedicated to Apollo.

To commemorate the triumph of Apollo over Python the sanctuary organized the Pythian Games
which began sometime between 591 and 585 BC.  The games were initially held every eight years, with the only event being a musical competition. Later, athletic events were added to the program and the games were held every four years with only the Olympic Games being more important.  

Apollo was thought to make his earthly home in Delphi for nine months of the year and while at Delphi, he spoke through the oracle, or so people believed. Starting in the 8th century BC, people from all over the known world would journey to Delphi to seek wisdom from Apollo which was dispensed by the Pythia (derived from Pytho), a priestess more commonly referred to as the Oracle at Delphi.

The oracle process was a lengthy one, usually taking up a whole day and only carried out on specific days of the year. First the priestess would perform various actions of purification such as washing in a nearby spring, burning laurel leaves, and drinking holy water. Then, an animal was sacrificed. The party seeking advice would make some sort of offering being allowed into the Temple of Apollo to receive the Pythia's  prophecies.
Aegeus Consults the Pythia Seated on a Tripod.
By the Kodros Painter, circa 440-430 BC.

According to the Greek historian, Plutarch, who served as a priest at Delphi and documented the inner workings of the Temple of Apollo, the Pythia would enter the inner chamber of the temple (*adyton*) and sit on a tripod.  After falling into a trance, she would mutter some incomprehensible words which would then be interpreted by the priests of the sanctuary.  It was the priests who then delivered the Pythia's words to those who had requested them. Even so, the oracles were always open to interpretation and arguments over the correct interpretation of an oracle were common.  Of course, the Pythia was always happy to give another prophecy if more gold was provided.

How the Pythia actually fell in to her trance has been a subject of speculation for centuries.  Recently, archaeologists and geologists have recently proven that the Temple of Apollo sat directly above fault lines that likely released intoxicating carbon-based gases into the adyton.  Basically, the poor Pythia was high as a kite when she foretold the future. 

The ancient people of the Mediterranean had such faith in Pythia's view of the future that no major decision was made without consulting the Oracle of Delphi first.  But with a limit of nine days a year for consultations with the Pythia, there was a protocol for gaining admission.  First tier queries came from citizens of Delphi. Second tier queries came from people to Delphians had categorized as deserving of special merit. Most often, the second tier included men of high rank. The third and last tier consisted of delegations from other city states. Whoever made the pilgrimage to the Delphi sanctuary was sure to have paid great sums for Pythia's oracles.

With the Oracle at Delphi as popular as she was, Delphi became a fantastic showcase of art treasures and all Greek states would send rich gifts to keep the Oracle on their side. It finally came to an end in 191 BC when the Delphi fell into Roman hands in 191 BC, and was stripped of its treasures by General Sylla in 86 BC.
Despite some building revivals by the Romans, the Oracle of Delphi lost its influence over the next few centuries, and its spiritual fire was gradually extinguished as Apollo's worship was replaced by a new religion - Christianity.

For centuries, Delphi lay unknown until it was discovered in 1880 by a team of French archaeologists.  Of course, these days, the ruins at Delphi are a popular tourist attraction.