Delphic oracle

The Delphic oracle is by far the most famous and the one to which allusion is oftenest made in literature. Its seat was on the southwestern spur of Parnassus in a valley of Phocis. In historical times the oracle appears in possession of Apollo; but the original possessor, according to the story, was Gaea.1 Then it was shared by her with Poseidon,2 who gave up his part in it to Apollo in exchange for the island of Calauria, Themis, the daughter and successor of Gaea, having already given Apollo her share. According to the Homeric hymn to the Pythian Apollo, the god took forcible possession of the oracle soon after his birth, slaying with his earliest bow-shot the serpent Python, the son of Gaea, who guarded the spot.

To atone for his murder, Apollo was forced to fly and spend eight years in menial service before he could return forgiven. A festival, the Septeria, was held every year, at which the whole story was represented: the slaying of the serpent, and the flight, atonement, and return of the god. Apollo was represented by a boy, both of whose parents were living. The dragon was symbolically slain, and his house, decked out in costly fashion, was burned. Then the boy's followers hastily dispersed, and the boy was taken in procession to Tempe, along the road formerly followed by the god. Here he was purified and brought back by the same road, accompanied by a chorus of maidens singing songs of joy.

The oracle proper was a cleft in the ground in the innermost sanctuary, from which arose cold vapors, which had the power of inducing ecstasy. Over the cleft stood a lofty gilded tripod of wood. On this was a circular slab, upon which the seat of the prophetess was placed. The prophetess, called Pythia, was a maiden of honorable birth; in earlier times a young girl, but in a later age a woman of over fifty, still wearing a girl's dress, in memory of the earlier custom. In the prosperous times of the oracle two Pythias acted alternately, with a third to assist them. In the earliest times the Pythia ascended the tripod only once a year, on the birthday of Apollo, the seventh of the Delphian spring month Bysius. But in later years she prophesied every day, if the day itself and the sacrifices were not unfavorable. These sacrifices were offered by the supplicants, adorned with laurel crowns and fillets of wool. Having prepared herself by washing and purification, the Pythia entered the sanctuary, with gold ornaments in her hair and flowing robes upon her; she drank of the water of the fountain Cassotis, which flowed into the shrine, tasted the fruit of the old bay-tree standing in the chamber, and took her seat. No one was present but a priest, called the προφήτης (prophētēs) and προφῆτις (prophētis), who explained the words she uttered in her ecstasy, and put them into metrical form, generally hexameters. In later times the votaries were contented with answers in prose. The responses were often obscure and enigmatical, and couched in ambiguous and metaphorical expressions, which themselves needed explanation. The order in which the applicants approached the oracle was determined by lot, but certain cities, as Sparta, had the right of priority.

The reputation of the oracle stood very high throughout Greece until the time of the Persian Wars, especially among the Dorian tribes, and among them pre-eminently the Spartans, who had stood from of old in intimate relation with it. On all important occasions, as the sending out of colonies, the framing of internal legislation or religious ordinances, the god of Delphi was consulted, and that not only by Greeks, but by foreigners, especially the people of Asia and Italy. After the Persian Wars the influence of the oracle declined, partly in consequence of the growth of unbelief, partly from the mistrust excited by the partiality and venality of the priesthood, who sometimes were bribed into giving oracles favorable to the inquirer, and in the case of Philip of Macedon, when Demosthenes said, ἡ πυθία φιλιππίζει (hē pythia philippizei, i.e., pythia is on Philip's side). But it never fell completely into discredit, and from time to time its position rose again. In the first half of the second century CE, it had a revival, the result of the newly awakened interest in the old region. It was abolished at the end of the fourth century CE by Theodosius the Great.

The oldest stone temple of Apollo was attributed to the mythical architects, Trophonius and Agamedes. It was burned down in 548 BCE, when the Alcmaeonidae, at that time in exile from Athens, undertook to rebuild it for the sum of 300 talents, partly taken from the treasure of the temple, and partly contributed by all countries inhabited by Greeks and standing in connection with the oracle. They put the restoration into the hands of the Corinthian architect Spintharus, who carried it out in a more splendid style than was originally agreed upon, building the front of Parian marble instead of limestone. The groups of sculpture in the pediments represented, on the eastern side, Apollo with Artemis, Leto, and the Muses; on the western side, Dionysus with the Thyiades and the setting sun; for Dionysus was worshiped here in winter during the imagined absence of Apollo. These were all the work of Praxias and Androsthenes, and were finished about 430 BCE. The temple was, on account of its vast extent, a hypaethral building — that is, there was no roof over the space occupied by the temple proper. The architecture of the exterior was Doric, of the interior Ionic, as may still be observed in the surviving ruins. On the walls of the entrance-hall were short texts written in gold, attributed to the Seven Sages. One of these was the celebrated "Know Thyself" (γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnōthi seauton3).

In the temple proper stood the golden statue of Apollo, and in front of it the sacrificial hearth with the eternal fire. Near this was a globe of marble covered with fillets, the Ὀμφαλός (Omphalos) or center of the earth. In earlier times two eagles stood at its side, representing the two eagles which fable said had been sent out by Zeus at the same moment from the eastern and western ends of the world. These eagles were carried off in the Phocian War, and their place filled by two eagles in mosaic on the floor. Behind this space was the inner shrine, lying lower, in the form of a cavern over the cleft in the earth. Within the spacious precincts (περίβολος, peribolos) stood a great number of chapels, statues, votive offerings, and treasure-houses of the various Greek states, in which they deposited their gifts to the sanctuary, especially the tithes of the booty taken in war. Here, too, was the council-chamber of the Delphians. Before the entrance to the temple was the great altar for burnt-offerings, and the golden tripod, dedicated by the Greeks after the battle of Plataea, on a pedestal of brass, representing a snake in three coils, and of which the greater part now stands in the Hippodrome at Constantinople.

Besides the treasures accumulated in the course of time, the temple had considerable property in land, with a population consisting mainly of slaves (ἱερόδουλοι, hierodouloi), bound to pay contributions and to render service to the sanctuary. The management of the property was in the hands of priests chosen from the noble Delphian families, at their head the five ὅσιοι or consecrated ones. Since the first spoliation of the temple by the Phocians in 355 BCE, it was several times plundered on a grand scale. Nero, for instance, is said to have carried off 500 bronze statues. Yet some 3000 statues were to be seen there in the time of the elder Pliny.



  1. Eumenides, 1, 2.
  2. Euripides. Ion, 446,
  3. Pausanias. Description of Greece x, 24.1.

This article incorporates text from Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898) by Harry Thurston Peck, which is in the public domain.