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Pythia: The Oracle of Delphi

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Orestes in Delphi to Seek Advice from the Oracle: A 4 BCE Painting

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Delphi and the Oracle

For the ancient Greeks, Delphi was the centre of the earth, the navel point, with the stone Omphalus, an ornate phallus-shaped rock, right inside the temple of Apollo there. The Apollo temple in Delphi situated on Mount Parnassus was also the abode of Pythia, the extraordinary oracle of Apollo, the god of light, knowledge, and harmony. Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Euripides, Plutarch, Ovid and many more Greek thinkers and writers have sung her praise. There are around 600 of her prophesies recorded in ancient texts. Socrates said about her, “the greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven-sent.” She was not an individual but a generation of oracles, united in their single-minded purpose of helping humans communicate with the worlds beyond. She remained a spiritual mother to the entire Hellenic era.


In the first century CE, Plutarch, who was born near Delphi, has written an account of Cicero’s encounter with the oracle of Delphi. The oracle had advised Cicero to follow his own heart rather than what other people would say, according to Plutarch. The saying, ‘know thyself’ is a maxim that all of us would have uttered at some moment in our lives but few know that it originally came from Pythia, the oracle of Delphi. Ion, a play by Euripides describes in detail Pythia and her magnificent rituals and prophecies. She was the diviner par excellence to the ancient Greeks. Yielding to the divine seizures, letting god Apollo enter her body, sometimes wailing and howling, and sometimes as breathless as a blade of grass in the morning wind, she foretold the future for kings and warriors and commanded their respect and love. Many wars were fought based on her prophesies, and many pursuits followed through.

The Only Picture of the Oracle from Her Time

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The Apollo Temple in Delphi

On Mount Parnassus, Apollo is said to have built a temple after killing a python, the warrior of the Earth Goddess. Pythia being the name of the oracle of Delphi, and the way the oracle’s rituals involved the spring water, rocks and the other elements of earth, one could conclude that Apollo might have made peace with the earth goddess and let some of the early worship rituals survive when he took over. Whenever a new God arrived in history, there was friendship as equally was animosity among their followers. The new and powerful often succeeded in banishing the old ones to forgetful antiquity. What exactly happened in Delphi stays blurred in the quagmire of history and myth.

How Did Pythia Look Like?

There is a painting of Pythia done by a potter on a large cup from a time when the oracle was alive and active, dated 440 BCE. In this painting, she is wearing an alb and laurel on her head. There is a laurel in her hands and she looks quite sober for a frenzied soothsayer. This is the only surviving picture of her from her time. Another interesting question is how old the oracle women were. One story goes like this- the oracle used to be a young virgin. One day a man from Thessaly, Echecrates the Thessalian, came, kidnapped the young and the beautiful oracle, and violated her. After that incident, it was decided by a law passed in Delphi that all oracle women should be middle-aged. However, many depictions of the oracle in literature and painting ignore this fact and present her as a young and seductive woman in her early twenties. The fifth century BCE writer Euripides described Pythia as wearing a long white alb that touched her ankles, and a crown on her head made of laurel and ribbons.


'Priestess of Delphi', A Painting by John Collier, 1891

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How She Talked About Her Prophesies

“I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless.” This is Pythia herself on how she arrives at the divine truth. Her prophecies were poetic, profound, and mysterious. Many of them later acquired the status of proverbs. One of her prophecies was, “Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta,” and this prophesy came true when in 192 BCE, Rome and its allies subverted the Spartan independent state.


One modern-day explanation about her prophesy powers rested in the argument that a spring inside her temple had some intoxicating gases coming out of it and these gases led the oracle into an elated and delirious state. Geochemical surveys of the temple ruins revealed that ethane and ethylene emanated from the springs of the inner sanctum. However, the collection of extremely wise and articulate prophecies made by the oracle and found scattered in different ancient texts cannot be seen merely as the blabbering of an intoxicated person. The laurel that she held in her hand is supposed to be a sweet bay or oleander branch. Some historians suggest that oleander might have contributed to the state of high in which she was in during her prophecies. Whatever the scientific explanation, the fact remains that in a highly misogynistic society as ancient Greece, the tradition of Delphi oracles was a special example of how at least a few women broke the chains of patriarchy and rose to be revered even by the kings.

The Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi

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Pythia and Socrates

Pythia had stated that no man was wiser than Socrates in Athens. Socrates had sent many of his disciples to her to seek advice for them but her proclamation of him being the wisest man did not convince him at all. For the rest of his life, he tried to understand the meaning of that prophecy and even tried to prove her wrong.


End of the Oracle Culture in Delphi

In 4 CE, the oracles ceased to exist because by then Christianity had become widespread. The Christian Emperor, Theodosius ordered the temples worshipping old gods to be shut down. Later, Emperor Nero and Constantine the Great pillaged the temple and took many artefacts from it to Rome and Constantinople. The place was forgotten and mundane life thrived where once the temple stood. The ruins of the temple stayed hidden under a village till 1463 when Cyriac of Ancona, a scholar and historian, discovered the ruins of the temple of Apollo in Delphi.


The Delphi of Today

The ruins of the temple of Delphi are a protected monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourists flood Delphi to have a rendezvous with the mysterious past and stand on the stone-paved atrium of what is left of the temple of Apollo.

References

Apollo and the Pythia: The Oracle of Delphi, symbolreader.net

The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets, William J. Board, 2007.

The Oracle at Delphi: The Pythia and the Pneuma, Intoxicating Gas Finds, and Hypotheses, Jelle Z. de Boer, Toxicology in Antiquity, 2019.

Archaeological Site of Delphi, UNESCO World Heritage Convention.



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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