Pythia and the Oracle at Delphi

Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl (1508–1512), Detail of Vault in the Vatican Museum.
Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl (1508–1512), Detail of Vault in the Vatican Museum. Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl on a marble throne, holding a scroll, but turning right to intensely look in the opposite direction. Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images

The Oracle at Delphi was an ancient shrine on the mainland of Greece, a cult sanctuary to the god Apollo where for over 1,000 years, people could consult the gods. A seeress known as Pythia was the religious specialist at Delphi, a priestess/shaman who enabled supplicants to understand their dangerous and disorderly world with the direct help of a celestial guide and lawgiver. 

Key Takeaways: Pythia, the Oracle at Delphi

  • Alternate Names: Pythia, Delphic oracle, Delphic Sibyl 
  • Role: The Pythia was an ordinary woman chosen at the Festival of the Stepteria from the village of Delphi by the Amphictyonic League. The Pythia, who channeled Apollo, served for life and remained chaste throughout her service.
  • Culture/Country: Ancient Greece, perhaps Mycenaean through the Roman empire
  • Primary Sources: Plato, Diodorus, Pliny, Aeschylus, Cicero, Pausanias, Strabo, Plutarch  
  • Realms and Powers: Most famed and important Greek oracle from at least the 9th century BCE to the 4th century CE

Delphic Oracle in Greek Mythology

The earliest surviving story about the founding of the Delphic oracle is in the Pythian section of the "Homeric Hymn to Apollo," probably written in the sixth century BCE. The tale says that one of the first tasks of the newborn god Apollo was to set up his oracular shrine.

Ruins of Delphi, Greece
Ruins of Delphi, home of the most famous oracle of ancient times, with the Phocis Valley in the background. Ed Freeman / Getty Images

In his search, Apollo first stopped at Telphousa near Haliartos, but the nymph there didn't want to share her spring, and instead, she urged Apollo on to Mount Parnassos. There, Apollo found the place for the future Delphic oracle, but it was guarded by a fearsome dragon named Python. Apollo killed the dragon, and then returned to Telphousa, punishing the nymph for not warning him about Python by subordinating her cult to his. 

To find a suitable priest class to tend the shrine, Apollo turned himself into a massive dolphin and leaped onto the deck of a Cretan ship. Supernatural winds blew the ship into the Corinthian gulf and when they reached the mainland at Delphi, Apollo revealed himself and ordered the men to establish a cult there. He promised them that if they performed the right sacrifices, he would speak to them—basically, he told them "if you build it, I will come." 

Who Was Pythia?

While most of the priests at Delphi were men, the one who actually channeled Apollo was a woman—an ordinary woman chosen when necessary at the Festival of the Stepteria from the village of Delphi by the Amphictyonic League (an association of neighboring states). The Pythia served for life and remained chaste throughout her service.

On the day when visitors came to get her advice, the priests (hosia) would lead the current Pythia from her secluded home to the Castalia spring, where she would purify herself, and then she would slowly ascend to the temple. At the entrance, the hosia offered her a cup of holy water from the spring, then she entered and descended to the adyton and took a seat on the tripod. 

Entranceway (Cella) to the Adyton at Delphi
Entranceway (Cella) to the Adyton at Delphi. MikePax / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Pythia breathed in the sweet and aromatic gasses (pneuma), and achieved a trance-like state. The head priest relayed questions from the visitors, and the Pythia responded in an altered voice, sometimes chanting, sometimes singing, sometimes in wordplay. The priest-interpreters (prophetai) then deciphered her words and provided them to the visitors in hexameter poetry. 

Achieving an Altered Consciousness

The Roman historian Plutarch (45–120 CE) acted as the head priest at Delphi and he reported that during her readings, the Pythia was ecstatic, sometimes considerably agitated, bounding and leaping about, speaking in a harsh voice, and intensely salivating. Sometimes she fainted, and sometimes she died. Modern geologists investigating the fissures in Delphi have measured the substances emanating from the crack as a potent combination of ethane, methane, ethylene, and benzene. 

Other possible hallucinogenic substances that might have helped the Pythia achieve her trance have been suggested by various scholars, such as laurel leaves (probably oleander); and fermented honey. Whatever created her connection to Apollo, the Pythia was consulted by anyone, rulers to common people, anyone who could make the journey, provide the necessary monetary and sacrificial offerings, and perform the required rituals. 

Traveling to Delphi

Pilgrims would travel for weeks to get to Delphi on time, mostly by boat. They would disembark at Krisa and climb the steep path to the temple. Once there, they participated in several ritual procedures. 

Each pilgrim paid a fee and offered a goat to be sacrificed. Water from the spring was sprinkled on the goat's head, and if the goat nodded or shook its head, that was seen as a sign that Apollo was willing to pass along some advice. 

Pythia's Role in Mythology

The oracle at Delphi was not the only oracle in Greek mythology, but it was the most important and appears in several related tales including that of Herakles who visited and got into a battle with Apollo when he attempted to steal the tripod; and Xerxes who was driven off by Apollo. The site wasn't always considered sacred—Phocians plundered the temple in 357 BCE, as did the Gallic chieftain Brennus (d. 390 BCE) and the Roman general Sulla (138–78 BCE).

The Delphic oracle remained in use until 390 CE when the last Roman emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379–395) shut it down.

Architectural Elements at Delphi 

The religious sanctuary at Delphi contains the ruins of four major temples, multiple sanctuaries, a gymnasium and amphitheater where the quadrennial Pythian games were performed, and several treasuries where offerings to the Pythia were stored. Historically, statues of the gods and other works of art were at Delphi, including golden images of two eagles (or swans or ravens), plundered from Delphi by Phocian invaders in 356 BCE. 

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece
Aerial drone overview photo of the Temple of Apollo and the switchbacked pathway up the hill. Delphi, Voioitia, Greece. abdrone / Getty Images Plus

The archaeological remains of Apollo's temple where the Pythia met Apollo were built in the 4th century BCE and earlier temple remnants date to the 6th and 7th centuries BCE. Delphi is tectonically active—there were major earthquakes in the 6th century BCE, and in 373 BCE and 83 BCE. 

The Oracle's Structures

According to the myth, Delphi was chosen because it was the site of the omphalos, the navel of the world. The omphalos was discovered by Zeus, who sent out two eagles (or swans or ravens) from opposite ends of the earth. The eagles met in the sky above Delphi, and the location was marked by a conical stone shaped like a beehive.

The Omphalos (Navel of the World) of Delphi, ancient site of Delphi, Greece
The Omphalos (Navel of the World) of Delphi, ancient site of Delphi, Greece. zinchik / Getty Images Plus

Inside Apollo's temple was a hidden entryway (cella) in the floor, where the Pythia entered the adyton ("forbidden place") in the basement of the temple. There, a tripod (three-legged stool) stood over a fissure in the bedrock that emitted gases, the "pneuma," sweet and aromatic emanations that led the Pythia into her trance. 

The Pythia sat on the tripod and breathed in the gases to reach an altered state of consciousness where she could commune with Apollo. And in a trancelike state, she answered enquirers' questions. 

When Was the Oracle at Delphi Active?

Some scholars believe that the Delphic oracle was established long before the 6th century, a cult at least as old as the end of the 9th century BCE, and perhaps dated to the Mycenaean period (1600–1100 BCE). There are other Mycenaean ruins at Delphi, and the mention of slaying a dragon or snake has been interpreted as documenting the overthrow of an older, female-based cult by the patriarchal Greek religion.

In later historical references, that story is wrapped into a tale of the oracle's origins: Delphi was established by the earth goddess Gaia, who passed it to her daughter Themis and then to the Titan Phoibe, who passed it on to her grandson Apollo. There are multiple strands of evidence that a woman-centered mystery cult existed in the Mediterranean region long before the Greeks. A late remnant of that cult was known as the ecstatic Dionysian Mysteries

Appearance and Reputation 

The religious sanctuary of Delphi is perched on the south slope of the foothills of Mount Parnassos, where limestone cliffs form a natural amphitheater above the Amphissa valley and the Gulf of Itea. The site is approached only by a steep and winding path from the shoreline. 

The oracle was available for consultation one day each month for nine months in a year—Apollo did not come to Delphi in the winters when Dionysus was in residence. The day was called Apollo's Day, the seventh day after the full moon in spring, summer, and fall. Other sources suggest different frequencies: every month, or only once a year.  

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