Delphi, Centre of the World and Home to a Powerful Oracle
Situated in continental Greece on Mount Parnassus, Delphi was considered to be one of the most important cities of ancient Greece. It was believed to be home to the goddess Gaia, or Earth, and later to Apollo after slaying Gaia’s son, the snake Python. The Pythian games—similar to the Olympic Games—were held here every four years to honour Apollo’s slaying of the Python dragon.
Excavations in Delphi have found evidence of occupation at this site back to 1600 BC. During the Mycenaean period (14th-11th centuries BC), there were small settlements in Delphi dedicated to the Mother Earth deity. Subsequently, the worship of Apollo was established between the 11th and 9th centuries BC.
Delphi was once considered the centre of the world because the eagles of the East and West were said to meet here, and became a famous Greek centre during the 7 th century BC—complete with a theatre, gymnasium, stadium, and hippodrome—where treasuries from all over Greece were said to be kept.
However, Pythia, the Oracle, was the most eminent feature of Delphi, and some of the most important people from all over Greece—including demigods, according to Greek mythology—visited here seeking advice.
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The Oracle of Delphi
Pythia was the name given to any priestess throughout the history of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The priestess was a woman over 50 years of age who lived apart from her husband and dressed in 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.
In 2001, geologist Jelle Z. de Boer blamed ethylene escaping from an intersection of faults beneath the temple as the gaseous culprit of the Oracle’s visions, but then in 2006, professor Giuseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome announced that a simple cocktail of carbon dioxide mixed with methane could have induced the psychic trances that the Pythia used to channel the gods.
After falling into a trance, the Pythia muttered words that were said to be 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 prophecies were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings.
Perhaps one of the most famous prophecies uttered by a Pythia, 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.
Camillo Miola - The Oracle, 1880 (Public Domain)
The Sacred Omphalos Stone
An omphalos is a powerful symbolic artifact made from stone. Considered the ‘navel of the world’, the central point from which terrestrial life originated, an omphalos was an object of Hellenic religious symbolism believed to allow direct communication with the gods.
In Greek mythology, Zeus is said to have released two eagles at opposite ends of the world, and commanded them to fly across the earth to meet at its centre. It was at Delphi that the two eagles are said to have finally met, and Zeus placed the stone under the glens of Mount Parnassus as a sign to humanity.
A later legend states that the god Apollo slayed the great serpent Python so that he could establish his oracular temple at Delphi, and that the omphalos marked the exact spot where he slayed Python. This myth may sometimes be found on ancient coins which depict an omphalos stone with a serpent wound around it.
Although the omphalos stone at Delphi is the most famous of its kind, it is by far not the only one. Another omphalos associated with both Apollo and divination is the omphalos found at Kerameikos, northwest of Athens’ acropolis.
The Omphalos Stone at Delphi. Source: efesenko / Adobe Stock
Most of the ruins that can be seen at Delphi today date from the time of peak activity at Delphi in the 6 th century BC.
- Temple of Apollo – The Temple of Apollo was the most important building in the Sanctuary of Apollo. The remains of the temple that can be seen today date to the 4 th century BC, but an earlier temple dating to the 6 th century BC had one existed on the same site.
- Treasury of the Athenians – The treasury is in the form of a Doric temple and dates to around 510 BC. It was built by the Athenians to house offerings to Apollo, and was constructed using marble from the island of Paros
- Theater – Dating from the 4 th century BC, with later alterations during the Roman period, the theatre could accommodate up to 5,000 people on 35 rows of stone benches. The theatre boasts spectacular views of the whole site of Delphi.
- Stadium – The stadium, which is located at the very top of the archaeological site, was constructed in the 5 th century AD. Its tiered stone seating could accommodate 500 spectators. It was built to host the Pythian Games.
- Castalian Spring – The Castalian spring was a series of monumental fountains and baths where the Oracle cleansed herself, as did those wishing to consult the oracle as a way to purify themselves.
The Omphalos Stone at Delphi. Source: efesenko / Adobe Stock
Today, Delphi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed for its incredible archaeological and historical value. Combined with its spectacular natural setting, and its rich mythological tradition, Delphi is one of the most awe-inspiring places to visit in Greece.
By John Black