Delphic Oracle

The Kastrian Spring - Delphi
This is where the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, would bath in the morning before channelling the wisdom of the god at the oracle. CC Flickr User Alun Salt

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.

Sources on the Delphic Oracle:

  • , by Sarah Iles Johnston.
  • Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, by Joan Breton Connelly
  • Neil Asher Silberman, John K. Papadopoulos, Ian Morris, H. A. Shapiro, Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell, Frank Holt, Timothy E. Gregory "Greece" The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Brian M. Fagan, ed., Oxford University Press 1996.

Also see The Great Oracles

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