Delphic Oracle

Delphic Oracle
Delphic Oracle

The Delphic oracle provided wisdom and advice to many ancient Greeks, and it continues to stir modern imagination regarding its verity and nature. According to archaeological evidence, the first temple of the site appeared in the eighth century b.c.e.

However, some have argued that its history is even longer and that it may have existed in a different location at an earlier date. Its origins are shrouded in myth, as the sources regarding the Delphic oracle are scarce and are largely of a literary variety.

The earliest written account with respect to the Delphic oracle’s emergence says that Apollo had come to Delphi—an area originally known as Pytho that had belonged to the earth goddess Gaia—and upon his arrival he killed the great python-dragon. Having destroyed the site’s guardian, Apollo established the location as a sanctuary, which was later to bear his temple. Inside the walls of the sacred house resided a human priestess, or Pythia, through whom Apollo spoke.

The Greeks believed that the temple’s location was the center of the universe. Set beneath the “shining rocks” of Mount Parnassus it was consulted by many individuals who ranged in importance. Initially, it was strictly statesmen of great power and other political representatives who visited the oracle; however, later in the oracle’s history wise philosophers as well as common citizens sought knowledge and advice at Apollo’s sanctuary.

The remains of the final temple of this once greatly prestigious and respected oracle can still be visited; however, Apollo’s voice at Delphi grew silent during the fourth century b.c.e.

The role of religion and divination in the life and politics of the ancient Greeks is a complex and elaborate one. It was hardly separable from daily existence, and it is difficult to understand the politics of the time without acknowledging early Greek religiosity. In fact, the very notion of citizenship was often defined by way of religion and cult.

Citizens sought knowledge and advice at Apollo’s sanctuary
Citizens sought knowledge and advice at Apollo’s sanctuary

Moreover, some scholars have argued that the Delphic oracle, and other sources of divination, played an influential part during the period of Greek colonization. Colonies were typically established by an individual founder (oikistes), who would consult an oracle for endorsement for the excursion, the location, and the justification of his leadership.

By extension the Greek oracles helped with the emergence and maintenance of the various Greek city-states (poleis). The oracular tradition of consultation was particularly important during times of political instability, as the words of the Pythia were used as a tool to eliminate social disorder.

Although the oracle’s responses did not substitute for decision making, they served as a means by which consensus or justification for a particular opinion or resolution was established. Because it was located outside the walls of the specific city-states that consulted it, the oracle was deemed nonpartisan and could therefore be trusted. However, some sources discuss bribery and gift giving either as a means to influence the Pythia’s prophecies or as an attempt to discover what advice was given to an enemy.

A sort of informal type of diplomacy took place at Apollo’s sanctuary. The oracle only granted divination sessions once a month and for only nine months out of the year. As a result numerous state representatives would have gathered at the site simultaneously.

Some of the earliest regions to have sought its advice were Corinth, Chalkis, and Sparta. By the late seventh and early sixth centuries b.c.e. Athens was also consulting Apollo at Delphi. However, during the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. other popular oracles arose at Dodona, Didyma, and Ammon, giving rise to greater choice for divine consultation.

The rivalry between the various oracles was also representative of the hierarchy of gods and their respective popularity. Delphi, and by extension Apollo, remained a favorite of many Greeks for quite some time.

Oracle maquette
Oracle maquette

Only with the emergence of Alexander the Great, who initiated the imperial age and the collapse of the Greek poleis, did the oracle of Delphi begin to fall out of favor. The concurrent decline of the oracle and the city-states further provides evidence for their important reciprocal relationship.

There is still debate surrounding what exactly took place during a consultation at Delphi and in what manner the response of Apollo was delivered by the Pythia. Fantastical accounts claim that the Pythia mounted a tripod and after inhaling fumes that rose from a chasm in the earth, she was sent into a frenzy or trance and uttered unintelligible words.

The attendant priests translated the utterances and delivered a clarified version to the inquirer. However, a more rational portrayal in contrasting scholarship describes the Pythia filled with the divine breath (pneuma) or wisdom of the god, whereupon she replied with great clarity to questions asked both orally and in written form. One account of a former priest instead describes the Pythia as being peaceful and composed after the sessions.

A number of the recorded responses received at Delphi have been preserved, and modern scholars have divided them up into categories ranging from the historical to the fictional. Due to problems in translation and the vagary regarding the context within which many messages were delivered, some of the recorded prophecies are less plausible and even incoherent.

Given the nature of such pronouncements on behalf of a god, the authenticity of any of the claims cannot be completely verified. For the most part the responses followed a set of stages. The Pythia would begin by declaring that the message should be taken seriously, reminding those present that the source was Apollo himself.

Next, she would acknowledge the seeker on behalf of the god and express a degree of interest and concern. This would be followed by the Pythia’s answer. She would invariably conclude with a message that was intentionally challenging insofar as it demanded some further interpretation and thought.

Although some have alleged that the responses were entirely arbitrary and ambiguous, others have understood the complexity differently. The argument follows that the power of personal judgment and intuition were very important and necessary virtues in order to insight-fully comprehend the Pythia’s prophecies.

In fact, the often-quoted injunction “Know Thyself” was inscribed in the lintel over the temple’s entrance. Without a certain amount of personal knowledge, it would be difficult for an individual to interpret correctly advice or wisdom.

The ancient Greeks took the wisdom of Apollo and his priestesses seriously for many years and continued to return despite the fact that the responses were not delivered in a cut-and-dry fashion.

Although we are left with little more than hypotheses as to how exactly many of the prophesies were interpreted and what impact they might have truly had, there is little doubt that the mystery surrounding Delphi has remained enchanting for the modern mind as individuals today likewise strive for wisdom and truth.