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Delphi

Delphi

The famous oracle of ancient Greece, where the priestess Pythia was consulted concerning the future and gave her answers in a state of trance, induced by intoxicating fumes. According to Justinian, "In a dark and narrow recess of a cliff at Delphi there was a little open glade and in this a hole, or cleft in the earth, out of which blew a strong draft or air straight up and as if impelled by a wind, which filled the minds of poets with madness." Lake Avernus, Heraclea, and Phigaleia were qualified for the evocation of the dead by similar intoxicating fumes.

According to Plutarch, the Delphian oracle had not been convicted of falsehood in a single instance. On the contrary, the verification of the oracles has filled the temple with gifts from all parts of Greece and foreign countries. In discussing the question "Why the Prophetess Pythia giveth no Answers now from the Oracle in Verse," Plutarch explained that the replies were always couched in enigmatical language when kings and states consulted the oracle on weighty matters that might have done harm if made public, but that private persons always received direct answers in the plainest terms.

Herodotus told of a successful test of the oracles by Croesus, King of Lydia. He dispatched envoys to the best six oracles: Delphi, Dodona, Branchidae, Zeus Ammon, Trophonius, and Amphiaraus. The envoys were instructed to ask on the hundredth day of their departure what Croesus was doing at home in Sardis at a particular moment. Four oracles entirely failed. Delphi was perfectly right. Herodotus quoted the reply:

   I can count the sands, and I can measure the Ocean;
   I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth;
   Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of shell-covered tortoise,
   Boiling now on fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron,
   Brass in the vessel below, and brass to cover above it.

Croesus wished to think out an action that could not be guessed at. He took a tortoise and a lamb, cut them to pieces, and boiled them in a covered brazen cauldron.

The decline of the oracles began two or three centuries before Christ. That of Delphi was closed in the fourth century by a decree of Theodosius. After a long period of disuse, attempts were made to revive the oracle at the opening of the second century C.E. under Plutarch's priesthood. During the period of Christianity under Constantine the oracle became finally silent.

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Delphi

Delphi (dĕl´fī), locality in Phocis, Greece, near the foot of the south slope of Mt. Parnassós, c.6 mi (10 km) northeast of the port of Cirrha. It was the seat of the Delphic oracle, the most famous and most powerful of ancient Greece. The oracle originated in the worship of an earth-goddess, and later legend ascribed it to Gaea. It passed to Apollo; some stories say he won it by killing the Python, others that it descended to him peacefully through Themis and Phoebe. The Delphic oracle was the preeminent shrine of Apollo, but in winter, when Apollo was absent among the Hyperboreans, it was sacred to Dionysus, who was said to be buried there.

The oracle was housed in the great temple to Apollo, first built in the 6th cent. BC (it was destroyed and rebuilt at least twice). The oracular messages were spoken by a priestess seated on a golden tripod, who uttered sounds in a frenzied trance. The inspired trance was said by the ancient Greeks to be induced by vapors from beneath the temple's floor; these may have been ethylene or other petrochemical fumes rising through faults that ran beneath the temple. The priestess's utterances were interpreted to the questioner by a priest, who usually spoke in verse.

Delphi was unique in its universal position in the otherwise fragmented political and social life of Greece. It was the meeting place of the Amphictyonic league (see amphictyony), the most important league of Greek city-states, and also the site of the Pythian games. Persons seeking the help of the oracle brought rich gifts, and the shrine grew very wealthy. The prestige and influence of the Delphic oracle prevailed for centuries through all of Greece. During Hellenistic times, however, the importance of the oracle declined. Delphi was frequently pillaged from early Roman times, and the sanctuary fell into decay. One of the art works excavated there is the beautiful 5th-century bronze statue called the Delphic Charioteer (now at the Archaeological Mus., Delphi, Greece).

See study by F. Poulsen (1920).

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Delphi

Delphi

Delphi, a town on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, was the site of the main temple of Apollo* and of the Delphic oracle, the most famous oracle of ancient times. Before making important decisions, Greeks and other peoples traveled to this sacred place to consult the oracle and learn the gods' wishes.


The Oracle at Delphi

According to Greek mythology, Zeus* wanted to locate the exact center of the world. To do this, he released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth. The eagles met at Delphi. Zeus marked the spot with a large, egg-shaped stone called the omphalos, meaning "navel."

oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god ¡s believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken



Originally, Delphi was the site of an oracle of the earth goddess Gaia. The site was guarded by a monstrous serpent (or dragon, in some accounts) called Pytho. Apollo killed Pytho and forced Gaia to leave Delphi. Thereafter, the temple at Delphi belonged to Apollo's oracle.


Consulting the Oracle. No one knows for certain how the process of consulting the Delphic oracle worked. However, over the years, a traditional account has been widely accepted. According to this description, a visitor who wanted to submit a question to the oracle would first make an appropriate offering and sacrifice a goat. Then a priestess known as the Pythia would take the visitor's question into the inner part of Apollo's temple, which contained the omphalos and a golden statue of Apollo. Seated on a three-legged stool, the priestess would fall into a trance.

After some time, the priestess would start to writhe around and foam at the mouth. In a frenzy, she would begin to voice strange words and sounds. Priests and interpreters would listen carefully and record her words in verse or in prose. The message was then passed on to the visitor who had posed the question. Some modern scholars believe that the priestess did not become delirious but rather sat quietly as she delivered her divine message.

Anyone could approach the oracle, whether king, public official, or private citizen. At first, a person could consult the oracle only once a year, but this restriction was later changed to once a month.


Influence of the Oracle. The ancient Greeks had complete faith in the oracle's words, even though the meaning of the message was often unclear. As the oracle's fame spread, people came from all over the Mediterranean region seeking advice. Numerous well-known figures of history and mythology visited Delphi, including Socrates and Oedipus.

Visitors would ask not only about private matters but also about affairs of state. As a result, the oracle at Delphi had great influence on political, economic, and religious events. Moreover, Delphi itself became rich from the gifts sent by many believers.


History of Delphi

The cult of Apollo at Delphi probably dates back to the 700s b.c., although the fame of the oracle did not reach its peak until the 500s b.c. In about 590 b.c., war broke out between Delphi and the nearby town of Crisa because Crisa had been demanding that visitors to the Delphic oracle pay taxes. The war destroyed Crisa and opened free access to Delphi. To celebrate the victory, Delphi introduced the Pythian Games, an athletic festival that took place every four years.

Open to Interpretation

Many rulers consulted the oracle at Delphi about political matters, such as whether to wage a war or establish a colony. However, the oracle's answers were often vague or ambiguous, leaving interpretation to the listener. Sometimes such uncertainty had ironic results. For example, King Croesus of Lydia asked the oracle if he should attack Cyrus the Great of Persia. The oracle responded that such an attack would destroy a great empire. Croesus attacked, expecting victory. However, his own forces were overwhelmed, and it was the Lydian empire of Croesus that was destroyed.

cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god




In early Roman times, Delphi was often plundered. For example, the Roman dictator Sulla took many of Delphi's treasures, and the emperor Nero is said to have carried off some 500 bronze statues. With Rome's conquest of Greece and the spread of Christianity, Delphi's importance declined. The oracle was finally silenced in a.d. 390 to discourage the spread of pagan beliefs.

pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs

The modern village of Kastri stood on the site of ancient Delphi until 1890. Then the Greek government moved the village to a nearby location, making the site of the ancient town available for excavation. Archaeologists have been working on the site since that time and have made many important discoveries relating to the temple of Apollo.

See also Apollo; Gaia .

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

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Delphi

Delphi one of the most important religious sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world, dedicated to Apollo and situated on the lower southern slopes of Mount Parnassus above the Gulf of Corinth. It was thought of as the navel of the earth.
Delphic oracle the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, regarded as particularly holy; the characteristic riddling responses to a wide range of questions were delivered by the Pythia, and have given rise to the use of Delphic to mean deliberately obscure or ambiguous.

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Delphi

Delphi Ancient city state in Greece, near Mount Parnassus. The presence of the oracle of Apollo made it a sacred city. The Pythian Games, celebrating Apollo's destruction of the monster Python, were held at Delphi every four years. The Temple of Apollo was sacked in Roman times, and the oracle closed (ad 390) with the spread of Christianity.

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Delphi

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