The Oracle of Delphi – how stoned priestesses ruled the Greeks

To some people, the word oracle probably brings to mind the giant software company of Silicon Valley. But the inspiration for the name – the Oracle of Delphi, in Greece – is much older than that.

Delphi and the Temple of Apollo – the former being the most important oracle in all antiquity, the latter one of the 12 Olympian gods of Greek mythology – were one of the most sacred sites in Greece. It was the place where enigmatic prophecies and mystical emanations decided the fate of kings and commoners alike. In the Greek world, nothing important was ever decided without consulting the Delphi.  

My interest in Delphi started when I was eight years old and my father gave me a book called ‘The Journal of the World’. The book listed the Oracle of Delphi as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a place full of mystery, and at the time it fascinated me .  Many decades later, I was finally going to visit it.

We left Hotel Hermes in Athens early in the morning of a sunny day in mid-May, excited by the prospect of soon being in what the Greeks considered the center of the universe. We drove for one hour, passing by rolling hills, olive groves and vineyards – and a charming small ski resort town called Arachova (yes, it snows in Greece), an ideal base from which to explore Delphi, few miles away. 

We drove north and inland on the Attica peninsula, whose story is linked with that of Athens, its most powerful city. By the 5th century BC, Athens allied itself with other towns in the vicinity, and became the center of an empire so significant and so intelligent, that we still talk about it today. Some of us even travel from far away places to marvel at its past glories. 

It was mid-day and the sun was intense when we arrived at Delphi. Perched on the edge of a grove leading to the sea, it was clear from the bus that only few parts of the Temple of Apollo were still standing. Looking from a distance, it was hard to imagine how those ruins – although dramatic – became so important in ancient times. But once we entered the archeological site, the plan became clear, and the layout was revealed in such detail that it all made sense.

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The ruins are captivating. There’s an eerie feeling in the stillness of the air, when you walk around, and whether you have little knowledge of ancient Greek history, or are just curious to see where the priestesses uttered cryptic prophecies, it is quite a place! After the Acropolis in Athens, Delphi is the most powerful ancient site in Greece, with a history reaching back as far as the Mycenaean period, more than 3000 years ago. The Oracle is even mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, as Pytho.

Linked to the cult of Apollo from around 1100 years BC, the Oracle was discovered by chance, when a shepherd noticed that his flock went into a frenzy when near a certain chasm of a rock. When he approached it, he also came under a spell and began to utter prophecies, as did other people who came to the place. Eventually a Pythia – an anointed woman over 50 who lived in seclusion – became the priestess of the Temple of Apollo and the oracle known in antiquity as the Oracle of Delphi. She would sit on a three-footed stool to utter a prophecy, in a ceremony full of symbolisms and fantastic rituals.

On oracle day, the seventh day of the month, the Pythia prepared herself, by undergoing a purification  and – if the male priests of Apollo determined it was a good day for prophesying – she entered the Temple, washed herself in the waters of the Castalian Fountain, chewed leaves and sank into a trance, getting literally ‘high’. The Pythia would then answer questions, later translated by the priests. However strange this ritual may seem to us today, the oracle’s advice played a significant role in Greek and regional politics, and in the colonization by the Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily (which they called Magna Grecia). Delphi also attracted people far beyond the Greek mainland – many cities built treasure houses there, but only the Treasure of Athens still stands.

The Oracle of Delphi is full of tourists from April to October, so be prepared to face crowds and high temperatures. Surprisingly, on the day we visited, most tourists were Asians, some looking lost behind their guides screaming orders in their languages, but taking many pictures of every spot, anyway. I wondered what significance these ruins could have for them – Greek history must be as alien to them as theirs is to us. Nevertheless, they seemed amazed and curious about what’s considered the cradle of our Western civilization.

The Delphi Museum

Most of the important artifacts found in the Oracle are now in the nearby Delphi Museum, an essential visit to understand the sanctuary’s importance to the ancient Greek world. The museum is home to a rich collection of art and architectural sculptures. One of its highlights is an impressive bronze statue, the Charioteer – among the greatest of surviving ancient sculptures – from 470 BC. There are many treasures worth your time and attention there, so give it at least 1 hour to see it all. And don’t forget your hat – the sun at Delphi can be unforgiving.

The Oedipus story

The legend of Oedipus, one of the many associated with the Oracle of Delphi, began when king Laius succeeded king Labdacus to the throne of Thebes, and married Iocasta. Since they didn’t have children, he went to the Oracle of Delphi, where he received the bleak prediction that if his wife were to bear a son, the son would kill his father and marry his mother.

But Iocasta did have a son. Wishing to thwart the curse, Laius sent the baby with a shephard ordering her to leave him to die on a mountainside. She took pity on the child, and gave him to a man who lived in Corinth, where the childless royal couple Polybus and Merope adopted and raised the baby as their own.

The couple called the baby Oedipus, on account of his swollen feet. When he was ready to succeed the man he thought was his father on the throne of Corinth, someone questioned his legitimacy. After asking his supposed parents and receiving no clear answer, Oedipus appealed to the Oracle of Delphi, where he was delivered the terrible prediction that he would kill his father and marry his mother. 

Deeply troubled, Oedipus ended up in a fight on the road, where he killed an old man. At the time, a creature called the Sphinx, with a body of a lion and a woman’s head and wings, had taken control of Thebes, and demanded travelers to solve a riddle or die. Then king of Thebes, Creon issued a proclamation saying that he would give the throne – plus his sister Iocasta’s hand in marriage – to anyone who saved his city from the monster.

Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx hurled herself off a cliff to her death. Oedipus was acclaimed king of Thebes, married Iocasta (not knowing she was his mother) and had four children with her.

When a plague descended upon Thebes, a messenger was sent to Delphi. He returned saying that the Oracle pronounced that the murderer of Laius had to be expelled. Oedipus looked everywhere for the killer, only to find out – through a seer – that he himself was the man he was seeking.

Iocasta was unable to bear the pain that she was married to her son, and killed herself. Oedipus, taking the pins from her dress, put out his own eyes. Blinded and driven out of Thebes with his daughter Antigone, Oedipus reached the town of Colonus, in Attica. The king there was Thesseus, and he gave Oedipus and Antigone protection, after Oedipus told the king a secret that – if passed down securely from father to son – would make Athens great and strong.

Oedipus disappeared miraculously, perhaps taken by the gods, after so much suffering. The legend became the tragedies ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Oedipus at Colonus’, written by Sophocles. Much later on, it became the basis of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex.

 

Practical info:

The Oracle of Delphi is located in the Attica region of Greece, 65 miles from the capital Athens. It was one of the wonders of the Old World, a place of pilgrimage and the most important shrine in all Greece dating back to the year 1400 BC.

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