The Oracle of Delphi

Lisa Weiss

The Plain of Amphissa (AKA The Sea of Olives), Delphi
August 1998

© 1999 Dr. Janice Siegel

 Background Material

  • Delos is important because this is Apollo’s birthplace and it became one of the most important sanctuaries to him.

  • But, the oracle stands at Delphi because this is where he defeated the Python.

  • Served as a place for men to come for 2000+ years to have their questions answered by Apollo’s priestess Pythia 1600BCE until 385CE.

  • Pythia believed she was receiving the knowledge she was giving from Apollo.

  • The Oracle was actually a rock chamber where Pythia was guarded by snakes, which protected her from any false ideas that  may have been brought into the chamber.

How to Access the Oracle

  • More difficult than one might think

  • Travel to Delphi was difficult.

    • See Map, p. 14 in Shelmerdine’s Homeric Hymns

  • Animal sacrifice upon arrival.

    • these would indicate whether omens were favorable.

  • Wait turn unless previous promanteia had been granted.

    • Promanteia: a prior right of consultation, permission to not cast lots to decide who would take their turn when, this usually came at a cost.

  • Questions were written on lead tablets and were given to Pythia.

  • After priestess had her ritual purification in the Castilian spring, followed by drinking waters of Kassotis and chewing the laurel leaf, she would take her seat on the tripod and start to answer the question.

  • Question would be answered by Pythia, but the response would be incoherent.

  • Responses would be translated into hexameter (6 verse) poetry by poet, but the ambiguity of the response often left the questioner feeling more confused than when he first came

 What the Oracle told

  • The oracle gave answers to everything from war to smaller matters, such as personal illness. This is part of the nature of the Oracle

  • 2 popular stories

    • Story of Croesus

    • Story of finding Orestes body

  • Very rarely were answers given in direct form, many times they were given as metaphors.

Change from a personal institution to a political institution.

  • In ancient Greece, monumental structures belong to everyone, but tripods belong to the individual.

  • Prior to 8th century BCE

    • no monumental structures in Delphi

  • 8th century BCE

    • Oracle was founded.

    • But people were still investing as individuals.

    • Cities, while starting to develop were not making large scale investments in community life yet.

    • Oracle stayed as personal institution.

  • by the 7th and 6th centuries BCE

    • cities were starting to belong to the communities.

    • more investments in building the cities and creating city centers.

    • community starts to become more important.

    • personal investments start to become institutionalized, leading to change in control over the monuments.

    • question of who is competing for the common good, who really wants the Oracle.

Modern Commentary

  • Fumes may have been created by earthquakes which could have led the priestesses to have some of these supposed visions.

  • These fumes could put people into a dream-like state without them actually fainting.

  • This could explain how she made the prophecies (and possibly why her language was so garbled when she explained things).