Pythia: Oracle and High Priestess of Delphi
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.
‘Alexander Consulting the Oracle of Apollo’ (1789) by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée. (Public Domain)
The Oracle of Delphi
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 (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. By the 8th century BC, 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.
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Who was the Pythia?
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.
This phenomenon has been studied by modern geologists. As Ashley Cowie reports for Ancient Origins:
“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.” Etiope believed it was possible that the “toxicity problems [were] due just to a deficit of oxygen in the Temple room, where air ventilation was weak and the gas release from the soil was strong.””
Furthermore, Etiope and his team found methane in spring waters around Delphi. He told LiveScience in 2006 “This environment is prone to methane formation...the only plausible explanation is that in the past there was a bigger methane emission (with a small amount of carbon dioxide).” The “sweet odor” the Pythia was said to have inhaled, “may have come from traces of benzene, another toxic hydrocarbon found in the area,” said Etiope.
Nonetheless, scientist de Boer disputes Etiope’s claim, saying, “Benzene is a dangerous substance and after a number of sessions the Pythias would have become sick and possibly died.” And, “Frequent deaths of Pythias have not been reported by any of the classical writers. On the contrary, they seem to have lived a long and healthy life.”
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. This can clearly be seen in the case of Croesus. There are many other instances where the prophecies of the Pythia were ambiguous.
“Priestess of Delphi,” by John Collier. (Public Domain)
Pythia Often Provided Ambiguous Messages
For instance, according to Herodotus, one of the Pythias told the Athenians during the Persian invasion of 480 BC 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.
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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 Pythia. As you may have guessed, the Athenians gained a decisive victory over the Persians and that was a turning point of the second Persian invasion of Greece.
‘Battle of Salamis’ (1868) by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. (Public Domain)
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.
Top Image: Depiction of the high priestess of Delphi, Pythia - ‘The Oracle’ (1880) by Camillo Miola. Source: Public Domain
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