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Dr J's Audio-Visual Resources for Classics

Courses Taught

INTELLECTUAL HERITAGE (at Temple University)

Course Info:
Sample Syllabus


Course Themes

Delphi- A Focal Point for IH 51 Texts

Writing Guides:
Writing Guidelines

style guide

Writing Analogies

Subject Study Aids:
Aeschylus' Agamemnon Study Guide

Aeschylus' Libation Bearers Study Guide

Aeschylus' Eumenides Passages

Sophocles' Oedipus and the Sphinx Lecture

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles' Funeral Oration

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles and America

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles and Philadelphia

Dr. J's Illustrated Aeschylus' Oresteia

Dr. J's Curse of the House of Atreus Outline

Dr. J's Background Lecture on Greek Philosophy

Dr. J's Apology Study Questions

Dr. J's Illustrated Plato's Apology

Socrates and the Apology Lecture

Dr. J's Plutarch's Pericles

Judaism Study Guide

Sundiata Study Guide

Epic Qualities of the Sundiata Lecture

Othello Study Guide

Machiavelli Study Guide

Galileo and Humanism Lecture



Courses Proposed
(needs some pruning):

Topics in Classical Culture:
The Legend of the House of Atreus: Greek Tragedy in Greece

Religious Foundations of Greek Culture

The Intersection of Myth and History

The Ancient Greek Cultural Nexus- Art, Archaeology, Literature and Topography

From 1996-2001 I taught in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This page is part of my teaching materials for Intellectual Heritage 51, a course covering literature and ideas from Sappho through Shakespeare...

Visit Dr. J's Illustrated Delphi for a thorough exploration of the archaeological site.

Delphi: A Focal Point for
IH 51 Classical Foundations Texts

by Dr. Janice Siegel


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(with all due respect to Dr. Peter Liacouris, for whom the Temple of Apollo has been renamed since I wrote the above joke)

Many of the texts we encounter in IH51 reveal man's unquenchable desire to determine his place in the world and universe. The pre-Socratic cosmologists of the ancient Greek world lay the foundation for Galileo's musings in natural science, while Plato and the Sacred Texts struggle to understand how man can lead a more fulfilled life whether it is by accessing the Creator or the Realm of ideas. Our IH51 texts show that men of all cultures, times and heritages seek to belong to something bigger than they are, to integrate themselves into the cosmological model. Although the goal is generally the same, the path each text follows is distinctly marked by the culture which generates it.

For the Greeks, one image pops up over and over again as a source of inspiration, security and knowledge beyond our experience: the sacred site of Delphi and the Oracle, named by the geographer Strabo as the most reliable oracle of the Greek world. Delphi is an important site in Greek history and Greek literature. In fact, it figures prominently in almost every one of the texts on our IH51 syllabus. First, let's put Delphi in its proper historical, political and religious context...not an easy task. In order to find out why so much of Greek literature and thought revolved around Delphi, we go first to mythology...

9412MID.jpg (11501 bytes)Delphi (overview, left) is known to the Greeks as the "center of the world" because of an action attributed to Zeus, King of the gods. As the story goes, in order to find the center of the world, Zeus let two eagles fly around the earth. Where they met was deemed the center, and where they met was above Delphi, which Zeus considered quite a respectable place to IMG0056MID.jpg (11279 bytes)found a sanctuary in honor of his son, Apollo. Originally Gaia, the Earth Mother goddess, was worshipped there, but Apollo won the site by killing a horrible giant serpent that threatened the townspeople (its den is at left), whose carcass was left to rot (Greek puthein, giving its name to the Oracle's priestess, Pythia, as well as our English python). Thereafter, the site was considered sacred to both gods.

9406MID.jpg (8611 bytes)A stone navel called an omphalos (Greek for "belly-button"), marks Delphi as both sacred to Apollo and as the center of the world (photo right). Ethnocentricity (believing that the world revolves around you and your people, or country - sound familiar?) is something lots of cultures have in common - and designating a specific geographical place as symbolic of that center is also not unknown. IH students: read the second to last chapter of the Sundiata carefully - you will find that the griot who tells the tale of the West African Mandingo people (from Mali), specifically refers to the the town of Sundiata's birth - Niane - as "the navel of the earth." And it certainly was the center of their universe.

Delphi was one of only four Panhellenic ("All-Greece") sites in ancient Greece - the most famous of which is Olympia, the other two being Nemea and Isthmia. Every two or four years, depending on the site, Greeks from all corners of the Greek world came to show their respects to the patron deity of the site by competing in literary, athletic and theatrical competitions for the honor of their hometown. Like all the other Panhellenic Games sites, Delphi also sported a stadium, a theater, and an area where the athletes could train and live for three months before the games. In Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Orestes chooses the Pythian Games (Delphi equivalent to "Olympic") as the site of his made up death: in his made-up tale, he dies in a chariot race accident while pursuing the glory all Greeks would risk their lives for.

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stadium theater Greek bath

IMG0068MID.jpg (9333 bytes)But the Temple of Apollo is the centerpiece of the site, and it was certainly a most imposing building. It was here that the Pythia sat on her tripod and intoned the message of the god himself. In fact, just being on site at Delphi fills one with the presence of a great unnamable magnificence...the natural landscape alone is enough to awe...

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IMG0039MID.jpg (9871 bytes)Several of our texts evoke Delphi specifically in regard to her religious function and character. For example, the Temple of Apollo is the actual setting for the beginning of the third play in Aeschylus' trilogy Oresteia, The Eumenides. Line 22 of that third play makes mention of the Corycian Cave (photo left), a real cave near the summit of Parnassos and sacred in antiquity to the nymphs of the area, to Pan, and to Dionysus.  

IMG0054MID.jpg (8566 bytes)Immediately after murdering his mother, Orestes plans to go to Delphi in accordance with the proper procedure for seeking ritual purification after a justified homicide from Apollo at Delphi. According to the rules for murderers, before entering the temenos (sacred area of the site), Orestes would have immersed his entire body in the waters of the Castellian Spring (photo left). However, before he even leaves Mycenae, he isIMG0070.jpg (3051 bytes) beset upon by the Furies, who nip at his heels all during the long trip to Delphi; he now has a more pressing reason to seek Apollo's help. The third play opens with Orestes hugging the omphalos and with the Furies fast asleep on the altar of Apollo, who then emerges from his Temple.

The Oracle of Delphi always figures prominently in Sophocles' Oedipus the King, almost exclusively before the action of the play begins. In fact, Laius (coming from theIMG0065.jpg (3514 bytes) Oracle) and Oedipus (on his way to the oracle) have their fatal meeting at a crossroads near Delphi (like this one at the right, but not this one at the right). And, of course, it is everyone's frantic desire to avoid the various prophesies of the Oracle that drives the action of the play.

The Oracle of Delphi even pops up in Plato's Apology! Socrates can argue the charge of impiety leveled against him by pointing to a prophecy of this same Oracle. Socrates claims that his friend Chaerophon, now dead, once was told by the Oracle that there was no man wiser than Socrates. During his trial, Socrates claims that he honors the god - and in fact does the god's work by proving the validity of the Oracle - by questioning those around him so he can learn exactly what the Oracle's words mean. He comes to the conclusion, of course, that his wisdom lies in his realization of his own ignorance.

In the spirit of eradicating all things pagan, the Pope Theodosius closed the Oracle of Delphi at the end of the fourth century AD, about the same time he officially ended the Olympic Games, and for the same reason.

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 10/25/2005
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