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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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Delphi

DELPHI

DELPHI . The Delphic oracle was the most important oracle of ancient Greece. Archaeological excavations at Delphi have shown that the temple of Apollo, which was the center of the oracular activities, was not built before 750 bce. It was a time of extensive Greek colonization, and one in which the oracle, for obscure reasons, managed to play an important role. This activity may well have been the decisive factor in establishing Delphi almost immediately as an authoritative oracle, and Homer's Iliad, most commonly dated to the eighth century bce, already mentions the wealth of its votive offerings. Its geographical location, far from powerful Greek city-states, undoubtedly helped its rise to fame; for none of the consulting states had to fear that its rich presents would foster the development of a rival state. On the other hand, Delphi was not so remotely situated as the oracle of Dodona (in northwestern Greece), its older rival. The Delphic oracle's fame was highest in the Archaic period, when even kings from Lydia and Cyrene came for consultation.

Earlier studies went so far as to stress the role of Delphi in supporting new moral and religious values such as requiring purification following a murder, but the evidence for such Delphic initiatives is actually very slight. It is indeed hard to see why Delphi, unlike all other oracles, should try to influence its clients beyond their immediate needs. The famous sayings "Nothing in excess" and "Know thyself," which in the sixth century were fitted into the wall of the Delphic temple, reflect existing ideas rather than new ones. Both sayings exhort man to remain within his human limitsa common idea in Archaic Greek literature. It seems therefore more likely that the oracle, through its central position in Greek society, functioned as a sounding board that could amplify current religious conceptions and preoccupations.

The ritual of consulting the oracle was relatively simple. After making various sacrifices, consultants of the oracle had to enter the temple of Apollo where they presented their questions, orally or written on a tablet, to the priestess of Apollo, the Pythia. She was an older woman, whose age made it socially acceptable for her to mix in the company of men such as priests and ambassadors. At the same time, she was dressed as a girl; the conception of the Pythia as the bride of Apollo was at least hinted at in Delphic mythology. The priestess made her utterances seated on a tripod and holding a spray of laurel, but unfortunately we are not informed about the exact process whereby she arrived at her oracles. Later reports, both ancient and modern, mention prophetic vapors emerging from a chasm below the priestess, but this has been disproved by modern archaeological findings. Such reports were evidently rationalizing explanations of the Pythia's skill in giving oracles. Her voice was supposed to change when she responded to the inquiries, which seems to indicate an altered state of consciousness. At the "séance," special "prophets" were present who translated the Pythia's utterances into acceptable prose or hexameters. It is not known to what extent the consultants could influence the outcome of the oracle, but it seems clear that the opinion of powerful clients was regularly taken into consideration. The grateful consultants dedicated votive offerings to the god, and in the highly competitive Greek society the exhibition of these offerings encouraged a kind of potlatch in dedications: at the end of the fifth century, there were nearly thirty special buildings in which Greek cities displayed their dedications.

Many of the inquiries and the oracle's corresponding answers have been preserved, although a number of these answers are demonstrably forgeriesproducts of hindsight. Greek cities as well as individuals sought the oracle's advice on a wide range of religious, political, and private matters. The evidence shows that in general the oracle helped to decide between various alternatives rather than to predict the future; recourse to the oracle must often have been a convenient way of avoiding the risk of being blamed for the wrong decision.

Delphi's prestige remained high until the fourth century bce, when it was looted and, perhaps more fatal, when Alexander the Great moved the center of the Greek world to the East. The rulers of the warring factions after Alexander's death (c. 323 bce) had no time for embassies to Delphi. Although on a much lower level, the oracle continued functioning in Roman times when the prolific author Plutarch (c. 45120 ce) was one of its priests; his two treatises The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse and The Obsolescence of Oracles are a mine of information on Delphi's rich mythology and ritual. In the fourth century ce, Delphi still attracted the attention of Roman emperors, but the prohibition of all pagan cults in 392 by the Christian emperor Theodosius I also meant the end of this age-old institution.

See Also

Oracles.

Bibliography

The best survey of the history of the oracle, together with a collection of all the extant oracles, is H. W. Parke and D. E. W. Wormell's The Delphic Oracle, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1956). The oracles are translated and discussed, if in a sometimes too skeptical way, by Joseph Fontenrose in The Delphic Oracle (Berkeley, 1978). For recent, revisionary studies of the oracle see L. Maurizio, "Anthropology and Spirit Possession: A Reconsideration of the Pythia's Role at Delphi," Journal of Hellenic Studies 115 (1995): 6986 and "Delphic Oracles as Oral Performances: Authenticity and Historical Evidence", Classical Antiquity 16 (1997): 30834. R. C. T. Parker's "Greek States and Greek Oracles," in R. Buxton, (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (Oxford, 2000), pp. 76108 analyses the questions Greek states posed and the answers they received.

Jan N. Bremmer (1987 and 2005)

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Delphi

Delphi

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

DEL-fye

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

The Homeric Hymns, Pausanias's Description of Greece

Myth Overview

Delphi, a town on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, was the site of the main temple of Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh) and of the Delphic oracle, the most famous oracle (someone who makes predictions about the future) 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.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) 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 (pronounced AHM-fuh-lus), meaning “navel.”

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

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 (pronounced KREE-sus) 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.

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.

Delphi in Context

The ancient Greeks believed in fate and destiny—the idea that one's path in life was already determined by the gods and could not be changed. They 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 the philosopher Socrates and the doomed King 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.

The worship of Apollo at Delphi probably dates back to the 700s bce, although the fame of the oracle did not reach its peak until the 500s bce. In about 590 bce, 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.

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 390 ce to discourage the spread of 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.

Key Themes and Symbols

For the people of ancient Greece, the oracle at Delphi came to symbolize wisdom and the voice of the gods. People journeyed from throughout the Greek empire to seek the wisdom of the oracle. Its importance as a central location was also symbolized by the omphalos located there, which was said to mark the center of the world.

Delphi in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The oracle at Delphi appeared in numerous ancient works, including a description of the battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and the invading Persians in 480 bce by Herodotus.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

To most people in the modern world, the idea of consulting an oracle for guidance may seem foolish. However, people routinely read horoscopes and consult fortune-tellers and psychics, even if only for entertainment. Do you think there is any value in astrological or psychic predictions? Are there tools or pathways people can use to get a glimpse of the future?

SEE ALSO Apollo; Gaia; Serpents and Snakes

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