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The Priestess of Delphi - Tales of the Ancient Greeks

Painting by John William Goddard

Painting by John William Goddard

The Sacred Ruins of Delphi

The ruins of Delphi have been sacred since at least the Bronze Age.

From this sanctuary on Mountain Parnassus, the Priestess (Pythia) delivered her oracles on what is, and what is to be in somewhat cryptic utterances.

The ruins are now little more than a plinth of stone supporting a few Doric columns, but once Delphi was the very centre of the universe and ruled all Greece. For this was Omphalos, the navel of the world.

The Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi


The Oracle of the Priestess

The Oracle was sought for every question of life.

No major decision was made without consulting the Oracle of Delphi first. Greek leaders, foreign kings, generals and common folk made the pilgrimage to the Delphi sanctuary, paying great sums for the Pythia's oracles.

The prophecies of the Pythia would determine the course of everything from when a farmer planted his seeds, to when an empire declared war. Arguments over the correct interpretation of an oracle were common.

The Oracle was sought for every question of life.

The Pythia played a major role in Greek colonisation too. She advised on likely sites for settlement, suggested patron deities and was, overall, a key agent in the spread of Greek culture through the Mediterranean.


The Sacred Trance of the Oracle

The Priestess and her Prophecies

As the Pythia sat on a bronze tripod in the inner chamber of the temple, the spirit of Apollo overcame her and inspired the prophecy.

The Sacred Trance

Some scientific traditions say the Pythia's trance was induced by vapours from a chasm below the temple. This was ethylene, a narcotic gas.

Some say that the divination was derived from chewing laurel leaves.

Others say that perhaps it was a result of the actions of snake venom on a woman who had a tolerance, an immunisation of sorts, against the poison.

Still others claim that the visions could have arisen from eating some rather suspicious mushrooms which are known to facilitate an altered, hallucinatory state of mind.

Or perhaps the Pythia did have prophetic visions.

priestess of delphi : john collier

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Apollo, an oracular god

He spoke through the Priestess

Apollo, the god of light, healing and prophesy reigned here, passing his messages through the Pythia. He is an oracular god, a prophetic deity, and known to his fellow Olympians as a legislator.

From Delphi, we are told by historian Herodotus, he dictated the constitution of Sparta.

Pilgrims would first bathe in the Castalian spring, ritually sacrifice a sheep and then put their question to the god. Kings of Lydia and Phrygia traveled to ask on matters of civic governance and Outcasts arrived seeking purification.



Before Apollo came to Delphi

Long before Apollo alighted on Parnassus an Earth-Queen dwelt here and at the sanctuary itself Pytho, a great serpent, a savage monster who caused much harm to humans, stood guard.

In the role of Divine Mercenary, Apollo the far-shooting archer felled her. Did this in reality describe the replacement of a matrilineal society by the patriarchy? The Greek stories are full of the male gods overthrowing (and so often debasing) Queens and Goddesses.

Apollo's victory over the Pytho was a significant event and marked his ascension in the Greek imagination.

Apollo and Dionysus : Dynamically opposed principles

Ir's hard to imagine the time-share arrangement between Apollo and Dionysus.

Apollo embodies the noble virtues of civilisation while Dionysus is the unleashed unconscious of the primitive state. Two dynamically opposed principles.

Perhaps early Greek society divided itself along partisan lines between followers of Dionysus, who were mostly women and slaves, and followers of Apollo, who were mainly men and citizens.


Disaster at Delphi

The sanctuary of Delphi fell into Roman hands in 191 BCE, and was later stripped of its treasures by General Sulla in order to finance his siege of Athens.

But worse was to come to the Oracle! In 83 BCE Delphi was razed by soldiers from Thrace and the Sacred Fire, which had been burning uninterrupted for centuries, was extinguished.

Then the spiritual fire of the Oracle gradually diminished. The worship of Apollo was slowly replaced by a new religion imported from the East : the religion of Christianity.

See Delphi and Die with Marcus Didius Falco

Falco is on one of his most puzzling cases ever. It's always a pleasure to get a new Falco mystery.

What do you think happened at the Oracle?


Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable :

Apollodorus :The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)

© 2008 Susanna Duffy

Leave your own prophetic utterance for the Oracle

WriterJanis2 on February 26, 2012:

Very well told. Oracles were so important at the time. Blessed!

Gayle from McLaughlin on February 12, 2012:

When I went to Greece I visited the Oracle of Delphi--very interesting article.

Ellen Brundige from California on November 23, 2009:

I always have a sinking feeling when science explains away a mystery. On the one hand, I do agree with science ... or rather, physical, natural phenonema ... providing some reason or basis for why something happens. But I'm always a little wary of letting science rationalize the irrational, making it easier to assume there is no numinous, spiritual component. Jung taught me to realize that the human soul is more than chemistry, and that goes for external stuff like Delphi as well.

I say this having felt something while there. And that's with the temple down, the fire out, the Pythias gone for almost 2,000 years!

Aannnyway. Lensrolling on my Delphi page, since I didn't have space to go into the story quite as much. Kick me for not visiting more of your lenses sooner; we are on the same wavelength!

Agapantha on December 13, 2008:

It only makes sense that the gases were hallucinogenic - a great explanation and background to this mystery - 5 stars

Tammy Winand from McleodGanj HP India on September 14, 2008:

awesome lens about this mystical place! I am a history junkie too although my mythology knowledge needs expanding!

5* to you and lensrolled to my Isis lens!

off to have more tea


isabella lm on September 07, 2008:

hi! nice lens on delphic oracle

thanks for joining the Greece group

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