Pythia - The Oracle of Delphi

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

“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.

Featured image: "Delphic Oracle" Painting by Heinrich Leutemann. Image source:

By Ḏḥwty

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[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

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[Babbitt, F. C. (trans.), 1936. Plutarch’s Moralia . London: Heinemann.]

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The foundation myths of the Greek colonies around the Mediterranean and Black sea (especially in modern-day S. Italy, Crimea, Marseille), reflect the important role of the major panhellenic sanctuaries in the colonization process.
The founding of a colony presupposed knowledge of topography and the resources of the regions earmarked to receive the colonists.
The sanctuaries, to which bypassing seafarers and merchants came as pilgrims, were centers where such information was collected and exchanged.

Oracles on the founding of colonies are known to have been delivered by the sanctuaries of Dodone, Zeus-Ammon in Libya and of Apollo at Delphi, which undoubtedly held precedence.
These oracles were a guarantee of the safe outcome of the operation and boosted the colonists' moral.
The "oikistes" (ΟΙΚΙΣΤΗΣ=leader of the "advance party" of colonists) [-such a person's name was ITALOS according to Aristotle, Thucydides and Dionysios Alikarnasevs] was a person of high social status who undertook to implement whatever the god prophesied, establishing not only the political institutions but also the cults of the colony.
Many of the oracles pertaining to colonies were ambivalent, that is, in the form of a riddle which the "oikistes" had to encode and solve.
This is explained by the awareness of the many dangers the colonists would have to confront.

Concurrently the sanctuaries too reaped significant benefits from the colonies' founding.
Their influence extended beyond the narrow local bounds and the cults were spread to new regions.
For the sanctuary of Delphi in particular, its active participation in the colonies' founding established it in the people's mindset as "cosmos" center.
On the other hand, luxurious ex-votos from the extended Greek world were set up in the Panhellenic sanctuaries of the motherland (metropolis), such as of Delphi and Olympia...The Greek colonization (the second one) of South Italy and Sicily starting in the 8th c. BC. is a phenomenon that sets its seal on the region's history, having a catalytic effect on the entire Western world.

"Perhaps this legend was a reflection of actual events"

Yes, but of course the above is so. If one can view the statements from an Astrological perspective it all makes sense even
"Blessed Salamis, you will be the death of mothers’ sons / Either when the seed is scattered or when it is gathered in" makes Astrological sense. (but it would need a very wordy explanation).
'Death' as it is used here means the specific planet moving into the unseen hemisphere (underworld duat etc) from the viewers location.

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