Pythia, The Oracle of Delphi
Perhaps one of the most famous prophecies uttered by the Oracle of Delphi is that of Croesus’ defeat by the Persian Empire. According to Herodotus, Croesus, the king of the Lydians wanted to know if he should wage war on the fledging Persian Empire. The reply he got was that he would destroy a great empire if he attacked Persia. Satisfied with this answer, Croesus prepared to invade Persia. Little did Croesus know that the ‘great empire’ referred to by the Oracle was not that of Persia, but his own. The rest, as they say, is history. While the authenticity of this story may be questionable, what is certain is that the Oracle of Delphi did exist.
Situated on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis, Delphi was associated with the Greek god Apollo. According to legend, the hill was guarded by a giant serpent called Python, who was a follower of the cult of Gaia (Earth), for hundreds of years. After killing Python, Apollo claimed Delphi as his own sanctuary. Perhaps this legend was a reflection of actual events. During the Mycenaean period (14 th-11th centuries B.C.), there were small settlements in Delphi dedicated to the Mother Earth deity. Subsequently, the worship of Apollo was established between the 11 th and 9 th centuries B.C. By the 8 th century B.C., Delphi was already renowned internationally for the prophetic powers of the Pythia. Yet, it was only in the following century that the Oracle became a Panhellenic institution, when Apollo’s advice was sought by the Greek cities on important matters of state.
The Pythia was the name given to any priestess throughout the history of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The priestess was a woman over fifty years of age, lived apart from her husband, and dressed in a maiden’s clothes. According to Plutarch, who once served as a priest at Delphi, the Pythia first enters the inner chamber of the temple ( Adyton). Then, she sits on a tripod and inhales the light hydrocarbon gasses that escape from a chasm on the porous earth. This observation can be confirmed by modern geologists. After falling into a trance, she mutters words incomprehensible to mere mortals. These words are then interpreted by the priests of the sanctuary in a common language and delivered to those who had requested them. Nevertheless, the oracles were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings. This can clearly be seen in the case of Croesus. Yet, there are many other instances where the prophecies of the Pythia were ambiguous as well.
“Priestess of Delphi”, by John Collier . Photo source: Wikimedia .
For instance, according to Herodotus, one of the oracles given to the Athenians during the Persian invasion of 480 B.C. was “Far-seeing Zeus gives you, Tritogeneia (Athena) a wall of wood, / Only this will stand intact and help you and your children .” (Herodotus, The Histories , 7.141). While some Athenians interpreted this literally and concluded that the prophecy referred to the survival of the Athenian Acropolis (it was surrounded by a protective stockade in times past), other regarded the “wall of wood” as ships. However, the latter interpretation failed to make sense of the last two lines of the prophecy, “ Blessed Salamis, you will be the death of mothers’ sons / Either when the seed is scattered or when it is gathered in ”. According to the official interpretation, if the Athenians were to engage the Persians in a naval battle, they were destined to lose. Despite this seemingly inauspicious omen, an Athenian commander called Themistocles decided to challenge the oracle by arguing that if the Athenians were doomed, the tone of the oracle would have been harsher. The Athenians were convinced, perhaps not by Themistocles’ interpretation, but by the fact that it would be better to fight the Persians, rather than not do anything, as seemingly suggested by the Oracle. As you may have guessed, the Athenians gained a decisive victory over the Persians, and was a turning point of the second Persian invasion of Greece.
So, the next time you’re tempted to believe in prophecies, remember the story of Croesus, and the Athenian ‘wall of wood’. In the latter, the misinterpretation of a prophecy caused Croesus’ downfall, and demonstrates the challenges involved in interpreting prophetic statements. In the latter, by defying the prophecy of the Oracle and taking their fate into their own hands, the Greeks were able to turn the tide against the Persians, and saved themselves from destruction.