The Oracle at Delphi

Ancient Greek Religion:
Ancient Studies
Three meanings
• The word oracle usually refers to a
pronouncement [prediction], made in
answer to an inquiry, by a qualified
interpreter who was in direct or indirect
communication with a god. Sometimes,
however, the word is used to refer to the
site of the shrine where such
communication took place or even to the
interpreter himself (Carpenter and Gula
135, emphasis added).
• Dating back to 1400 BC, the Oracle of Delphi was the
most important shrine in all Greece, and in theory all
Greeks respected its independence. Built around a
sacred spring, Delphi was considered to be the
omphalos - the center (literally navel) of the world.
• People came from all over Greece and beyond to have
their questions about the future answered by the Pythia,
the priestess of Apollo. And her answers, usually cryptic,
could determine the course of everything from when a
farmer planted his seedlings, to when an empire
declared war.
•Source: background/7_p1.html
• "There was a stone at Delphi [in central
Greece near Mount Parnassus
overlooking the Gulf of Corinth] called the
omphalos, a word which means 'center' or
'navel.' Zeus was said to have released
birds simultaneously from the opposite
ends of the world and, because they met
at that spot, it was regarded as the center
of the world (Carpenter and Gula 135).
• “Apollo made known his father's will
through the oracle at Delphi . . .”
(Carpenter and Gula 135).
• Zeus Apollo
• “In early times it seems that the oracle was
available for consultation only during one day
out of the year. Later, however, this seems to
have been expanded to one day out of each
month. During the winter months . . . the oracle
was closed and the site was sacred to Dionysus.
It would seem, then, that there were at most a
total of nine consultation days a year--but during
those nine days, the oracle was available from
dawn to dusk and hundreds stood in line waiting
for their turn” (Carpenter and Gula 135).
• "The enquirer first had to purify himself with holy
water and pay a consultation fee. An animal was
then sacrificed on the altar outside the temple.”
• "The Pythia was a woman over 50. Once
appointed, she had to remain chaste. She
bathed in the Kastalian Spring, burned laurel
leaves and barley meal, and then sat on a tripod
in the adyton [sacred inner chamber.]” (Mee and
Spawforth 310)
• "Delphi was an international site, and anyone could
consult the oracle. After ritual purification and the
offering of an expensive cake to the god, the petitioner
would sacrifice an animal; if this sacrifice was accepted,
he would then go into an inner chamber. There, a
woman known as a pythia sat on a bronze tripod and
uttered ecstatic sounds. How she reached her ecstatic
state is a matter of debate, but there is no basis for the
story that she inhaled fumes emitted from a fissure in the
rocks. Whatever the cause, the sounds she made were
said to be the utterances of Apollo. A priest who listened
to these sounds would then translate them into
hexameter verses for the petitioner. There is evidence
that, at times, when the oracle was not in session,
petitioners could get an "either/or" answer through
sacred lots. The oracle at Delphi continued to make
pronouncements well into the fourth century A.D., when
it was closed by a Christian emperor” (Carpenter and
Gula 135-136).
• The oracle supposedly
said that Socrates was
the wisest man in
Greece. Like many
prophecies, this
statement is ambiguous
and subject to
interpretation. Note how
Socrates interprets it in
“The Apology.”
Appendix: background on the name Pythia
• In Greek mythology, a female serpent born of the Earth.
The goddess Hera sent Python to torment her rival Leto,
one of the many loves of Zeus, and the mother of Apollo.
The young Apollo slew the Python and bid the serpent to
rot where it had fallen. The spot where this encounter
took place was called Pytho, from the Greek word pytho,
"to rot." The name was later changed to Delphi. The site
became the most venerated shrine in ancient Greece,
sacred to Apollo. The Pythian Games were held every
four years in honor of the ancient Python and were next
in importance to the famous Olympic Games.
The Origins of Delphi
According to one myth, Zeus set two eagles free, one from each ends of the Earth. Where they
met, he established Delphi as the center of the world. A stone marked like a navel (Omphalos in
Greek) was the place from which the Oracle—a wise being, capable of speaking words of the
gods and foretelling the future—would speak.
Long before that, the site of the shrine was sacred to Gaia. At that time Delphi was called Pytho. A
female serpent-dragon, Python, guarded the shrine. The young god Apollo slew Python and
commanded her spirit to be his oracle at Delphi.
Delphi was in fact Apollo's chosen land. Having killed the serpent Python, he built an altar in the
sacred grove. According to one legend, Apollo was looking for priests to minister to his shrine
when he saw a ship manned by Cretans, a very ancient race. Apollo turned himself into a dolphin
and sped after the ship. He captured the ship and persuaded the sailors to guard his temple,
which they then called Delphi in honor of the dolphin (Greek delphin).
The decline of Delphi and its oracle is paralleled by the decline of Greece and of the justice and
moral excellence represented by Apollo. Some efforts were made to restore Delphi's influence but
finally, in CE 385, the Emperor Theodosius silenced the voice of Apollo forever, in the name of
• Gula, Robert J. and Thomas H. Carpenter.
Mythology Greek and Roman. New York:
Longman, 1977.
• Mee, Christopher and Antony Spawforth.
Greece: An Oxford Archaeological Guide.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Oracle at Delphi background/7_p1.html
Socrates image: