Ancient Greek History: Tripod

A silver coin depicting the Delphic tripod.
A silver coin depicting the Delphic tripod. De Agostini/G. Cigolini/Getty Images

Tripod comes from Greek words meaning "3"+"feet" and refers to a three-legged structure. The best known tripod is the stool at Delphi on which the Pythia sat to produce her oracles. This was sacred to Apollo and was a bone of contention in Greek mythology between Hercules and Apollo. In Homer, tripods are given as gifts and are like 3-footed cauldrons, sometimes made of gold and for the gods.

Delphi

Delphi held extreme importance to the ancient Greeks.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Delphi is an ancient town and seat of the most important Greek temple and oracle of Apollo. It lay in the territory of Phocis on the steep lower slope of Mount Parnassus, about 6 miles (10 km) from the Gulf of Corinth. Delphi is now a major archaeological site with well-preserved ruins. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Delphi was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world. According to ancient myth, Zeus released two eagles, one from the east, the other from the west, and caused them to fly toward the centre. They met at the future site of Delphi, and the spot was marked by a stone called the omphalos (navel), which was later housed in the Temple of Apollo. According to legend, the oracle at Delphi originally belonged to Gaea, the Earth goddess, and was guarded by her child Python, the serpent. Apollo is said to have slain Python and founded his own oracle there.”

Delphic Oracle

The great Panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, was home to the Delphic Oracle. It was also the site of the Pythian Games. The first stone temple there was built in the Archaic Age of Greece, and burned in 548 B.C. It was replaced (c. 510) by members of the Alcmaeonid family.

Later it was again destroyed and rebuilt in the 4th century B.C. The remains of this Delphic sanctuary are what we see today. The sanctuary may have preceded the Delphic Oracle, but we don't know.

Delphi is best known as the home of the Delphic Oracle or the Pythia, a priestess of Apollo. The traditional picture is of the Delphic Oracle, in an altered state, muttering words inspired by the god, which male priests transcribed. In our composite picture of the goings-on, the Delphic oracle sat on a great bronze tripod in a spot above a crevice in rocks from which vapors rose. Before sitting, she burned laurel leaves and barley meal on the altar. She also wore a laurel wreath and carried a sprig.

The oracle closed down for 3 months a year at which time Apollo wintered in the land of the Hyperboreans. While he was away, Dionysus may have taken temporary control. The Delphic Oracle was not in constant communion with the god, but produced prophecies only on the 7th day after the new moon, for the 9 months of the year during which Apollo presided.

The Odyssey (8.79-82) provides our first reference to the Delphic Oracle.

Modern Usage

A tripod has come to refer to any portable three-legged structure that is used as a platform for supporting the weight and maintaining the stability of something.