First Ancient Oracle Well to Apollo unearthed in Athens
Archeologists discovered an oracle well, which is at least 1,800-years-old and may be the first ancient oracle to Apollo found in Athens. Moreover, the prophecy at the sanctuary seems to be much older.
According to Haaretz, the oracle well was found by the team led by Dr. Jutta Stroszeck, director of the Kerameikos excavation on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens. It is the first time that an oracular edifice to Apollo has been discovered in Athens. Although, for centuries it was believed that the center of Apollo's cult was located in Delphi, the most recent discovery may challenge this theory. The oracle well was located in the Temple of Artemis Soteira.
The area around the sanctuary is still watered by the Eridanos River, which flows through the city from east to west. The oracle well was used for hydromancy, a method of divination by means of water.
A woman practicing hydromancy. ‘Circe Invidiosa’ by John William Waterhouse
Stroszeck explained to Haaretz:
“Water, and in particular drinking water, was sacred. In Greek religion, it was protected by nymphs, who could become very mischievous when their water was treated badly."
In ancient times people used the oracle’s guidance not only to know the future. They also asked for simple everyday matters, such as solutions to problems, possibilities of healing disease, finding a lover, etc.
The oracle well was walled with clay cylinders. The researchers discovered more than twenty inscriptions in Greek. All of them included the same phrase: "Come to me, O Paean, and bring with you the true oracle". The word ''Paean' 'is the epithet that designated the god Apollo, the male deity associated with art, purification and oracular activity.
Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and the Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy (public domain)
The oracle well stayed hidden for many centuries under another very important part of the ancient temple. In 2012, the researchers discovered that an omphalos had been meticulously mounted on a marble slab that, in turn, covered an opening. It was lifted carefully using a crane and the circular well was located below. According to the writer of Ancient Origins, DHWTY, ''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.
Although the omphalos stone at Delphi is the most famous of its kind, it is by far not the only one. Omphalos stones have been found in various sites such as Thebes and Karnak in Egypt and in buildings of the Vinca culture in Southeastern Europe. Yet, these stones probably functioned differently from the Delphic omphalos stone. For instance, many buildings of the Vinca culture contained an omphalos stone, indicating that they may have held some ritual significance to the people of that ancient culture.''
Marble omphalos (navel of the world), representing the stone Zeus threw from the heavens). Credit: Jutta Stroszeck
The oracle was discovered in Kerameikos in central Athens, northwest of the Acropolis. The works there have taken a place since the 19 th century. The excavation site consists of a large sanctuary, which contained thousands of precious artifacts. The name of the site, Kerameikos, comes from the Greek word for pottery or ‘ceramics’. It was a settlement of potters, vase painters and other people connected with creating famous Attic vases. Nearby the site was the ancient agora and the famous Academy of Plato. Moreover, it was a location of the most important cemetery of ancient Athens. The oldest tombs, come from the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BC). The burials were continued and the cemetery expanded during the sub-Mycenaean period (1100-1000 BC), Geometric period (1000-700 BC) and Archaic period (700-480 BC). It was also in use during the Early Christian period (338 BC – c. 600 AD).
Kerameikos archaeological park, Athens (public domain)
Archeologists also researched a 2,500-year-old bathhouse. The bath served the citizens of Athens and the travelers. It was discovered during the current excavation season. The researchers believe that it is the spa mentioned by the Greek rhetorician Isaios, and referred to by Aristophanes. It was in use between the 5 th and the 3 rd centuries BC. It was often used by the students of Plato's Academy, as well as the craftsmen.
Top image: The oracular well dedicated to Apollo. It dates to about 1800 years ago but may have been used for eons before. Credit: Jutta Stroszeck.