More than 2,500 years ago, pilgrims from all over Greece and farther abroad used to make their way to the sacred site of Delphi in central Greece. They came to consult the most famous oracle of the ancient world. Some travelled by foot along the road that led from Athens to the southwest. Others came by ship, disembarking at a port, now known as Itea, on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth. From here, a journey of about three hours took them through a broad plain and into full view of Mount Parnassus, which towered above a sprawling glitter of white buildings and monuments.
As they approached, they would have gained a clearer view of the Sacred Way as it skirted the mountainside and snaked up through the Sanctuary of Apollo, crowned by its magnificent temple. Other buildings would have come into view: the white marble theatre; the 7,000-seater stadium at the top of the town; the gymnasium with its open-air and covered race tracks; and the elegant circle of Doric columns that formed the outside of the tholos, or rotunda, in the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia.
Little now remains of the buildings of Delphi. But its dramatic setting—rocky crags, crevices, gushing springs, imposing cliffs—is still awesome. Below the sanctuary is a precipitous drop down to the gorge of Pleistos, which dissolves into the broad expanse of olive trees leading to the blue waters of the gulf. Above it rise great barren cliffs which, because they reflected light and glowed at sunset, were known as the Phaed riades, the “Shining Ones”. A chasm cuts into these cliffs and at its base flows the Castalian spring, whose waters were used for ritual purification.
The coming of Apollo
Delphi’s wild mountain scenery, 2,000 feet above sea level, naturally lent itself to the veneration of Ge, the Earth goddess, to whom the site was originally sacred. The Greeks considered Delphi to be the centre of the world. According to legend, Zeus, father of the gods, released two eagles from th opposite ends of the earth. The spot below the point where they met—Delphi—was deemed to be the centre, and was marked by a stone known as the omphalos (“navel”).
Another legend relates that a monstrous serpent guarded the place, which was then known as Pytho, and Ge’s oracle there. However, Apollo, son of Zeus and god of light, came to Pytho and slew the serpent or “Python”. He then set up his own oracle, with a priestess, known as the Pythia, acting as the medium through which the god replied to questioners.
At the height of its popularity, the shrine needed up to three Pythias to cope with the questioners’ demands. According to the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, the Pyth ias were at first young virgins. However, when one of them was abducted and raped by a Thessalian rogue, it was decided that they should be chaste matrons of at least 50 years of age.
The legends relate that the Pythia sat on a three-legged bowl or tripod placed over a deep crack in the earth. From this fissure intoxicating vapours would rise, inducing the Pythia to utter a stream of frenzied and incoherent sounds. Other evidence sugges:s that she entered a state of trance by chewing laurel leaves.
The Pythia was consulted on all manner of things — matters of religion, money, marriage, and especially colonial enterprises. Questioners were required to purify themselves beforehand in the waters of the Castalian spring. There then followed a ritual in which a goat was sprinkled with cold water: if it trembled all over, the signs were right for the goat to be sacrificed and for the god to be petitioned. The questioner duly paid a fee and waited his turn. Questions were written down on tablets and handed to the Pythia, who then entered a trance and babbled out an answer. This, in turn, was interpreted by a priest, who wrote it down in verse and gave it to the questioner.
The ambiguous oracle
The answers given by the oracle must have been found consistently accurate or helpful enough down the ages for the Greek historian Strabo to state that it had the reputation for being the most truthful in the world. Yet the oracle was also notorious for the ambiguity e its pronouncements.
It is said that Croesus, King of Lydia 560 - 546 B.C.) in Asia Minor, decided to test the truthfulness of the Deiphic and other oracles by asking them simultaneously through: proxies what he, Croesus, was do at the time of questioning. Only the Deiphic oracle answered correctly: Croesus was boiling up a tortoise and a lamb in a brass pot. The king was so impressed by this that he showered Delphi with expensive gifts.
However, the Oracle hardly repaid this lavishness when it was asked by Croesus what would happen if he attacked the Persians. The cryptic reply was that if he did, he would destroy a great empire. The oracle was correct. But it was Croesus’ own empire that was destroyed.
With similar ambiguity the oracle warned the Spartan Phalanthos, who was leading a colonial expedition to Italy, that he would capture the town of Tarentum as soon as he felt rain falling from a clear sky. Impossible though this seemed, the oracle was vindicated when Phalanthos felt the tears on his neck (“rain”) of his weeping wife Aithra (whose name means “clear sky”): he then went on to capture the town.
The oracle also warned the Roman emperor Nero to beware of the 73rd year. This turned out to be not his own, but a veiled reference to his successor, the 73-year-old Galba. It was more straightforward when it declared that the Greek philosopher Soc rates was the wisest man in Greece, and told Alexander the Great: “My son, none can resist you.”
The historical origins of Delphi go back more than 3,000 years. But it was only from the eighth to the sixth century B.C. that the place began to grow and flourish. Today, the splendour of the sanctuary of Apollo, enclosed within a roughly rectangular area measuring 200 by 140 yards, has to be reconstructed in the mind from the ruins of its buildings, monuments and statues. Flanking the Sacred Way that twists uphill to the temple of Apollo were numerous small tem ple-like buildings known as “treasuries”. These were erected by city states to house valuable gifts dedicated to the god in appreciation of the oracle, and also to show off their opulence and prestige.
The treasury of the Siphnians, with two caryatids—columns in the form of female figures—supporting the porch, was built with money obtained from the gold mines of Siphnos. The Athenians’ treasury—the only one to be restored—was a marble building of the Doric order. Its outside walls were covered with inscriptions, including two hymns to Apollo, complete with ancient musical notation.
Among other sights visitors would have seen were the circular halos, or threshing floor, where theatrical enactments of Apollo slaying the Python were periodically staged; the elegant colonnade erected by Athens; and the striking monument of three bronze inter twined snakes rising up and supporting a ripod, raised by the Greeks after their victory against the Persians at Plataia in 479 B.C. Dominating the sanctuary was the tem ple of Apollo, rebuilt twice, in 546 and 373 B.C., after destruction by fire and earthquake respectively. Although the Pythia operated from within the temple, it is difficult to determine exactly where. Nor has the vapour-exuding chasm ever been found.
Decline and fall
Delphi’s importance and prestige survived the oracle’s unpatriotic advice to the Greeks not to withstand the invading Persians in the early fifth century B.C. The Greeks even showered the place with statues, monuments and trophies in celebration of their victory. But during the following centuries, the oracle’s reputation for impartiality declined with its allegiance to different powerful states, including Athens and Sparta.
In the second century B.C., the Romans over Delphi, and its influence and prestige sank further. The emperor Nero A.D. 54—68) plundered more than 500 statues from the site. By the time the emperor Julian A.D. 360—66) sent a questioner to Delphi, it was a ghost of its former self. The answer the oracle is said to have given Julian evokes a poignant image of its sad lapse into decay: “Tell the king this: the glorious temple has f into ruin; Apollo has no roof over his head; the bay leaves are silent, the prophetic in and fountains are dead.”
With its spirit already broken, the oracle officially closed down in about 385 by the Christian emperor Theodosius. The Apollonian cult, which had usurped that of the Earth goddess, had been ousted by a brave w religion.