The Oracle of Delphi was an important Greek priestess and soothsayer who practiced divination in the Temple of Apollo at the ancient sanctuary of Delphi on Mount Parnassus. Also known as the Pythia, the oracle was a real woman carefully selected by the priests of the sanctuary. When one Pythia died, another one took her place as the high priestess. Sometimes high on botanical plants or toxic fumes that rose from the earth, the oracle entered a divine trance and channeled the god Apollo to foretell the future. Although there were other oracles around the world, the Pythia of Delphi was the most legitimate.
What Does Oracle Mean?
By definition, an oracle can be a priestess or priest who serves as a medium to provide prophecies or advice. It can also be the place where such prophecies are given, or it can be the prophecy itself. For the sake of clarity, in this article, the word oracle will usually refer to the priestess, seer, prophetess, medium, or Sibyl.
How Was the Oracle of Delphi Created?
Located about 100 miles northeast of Athens, Delphi was the very navel or center of the world to the Greeks. In the first century CE, Plutarch wrote about the Delphic sanctuary as having a “three thousand years’ old reputation.” However, the evidence does not support this. Many experts agree that between 1700 BCE-1400 BCE, the sanctuary, previously called Pytho, began as a place of the worship of Gaia (Hoyle). As a primordial goddess, Gaia was the Mother Earth who gave birth to the gods.
Based on the Greek story, it was Gaia who first inhabited Delphi, and her son, Pytho (or Python), a mighty serpent or dragon, guarded the site. Gaia appointed the nymph Daphnis as her prophetess — the first Oracle of Delphi. Daphnis breathed in what the writer on ancient Greek myth and religion Robert Graves called “the fumes of prophecy.” Others say she inhaled methane, the odor of rot from a cadaver, or burning laurel leaves.
Later in the myth, Apollo killed Gaia and her son, Python. Apollo then became the indwelling god of the sanctuary at Delphi. From about 1200 BCE, the holy priestess channeled Apollo for all prophecies. A large temple of Apollo was erected in the seventh century BCE and became the most important structure at the acropolis in Delphi. It burned down in 548 BCE, and subsequently, a new temple was built in its place.
The Fame of the Oracle
The prestige and power of the Oracle of Delphi peaked between the sixth century BCE and the fourth century BCE. Kings and Queens, Generals, and soldiers from many countries traveled far to visit the Delphic prophetess. Early on, there was one priestess who divined the future on only one day per year — the birthday of Apollo. Later, as the oracle’s popularity spread, two or three priestesses shared the job by rotating across most days for nine months out of the year.
During the winter, as the Greeks believed, Apollo left the Oracle at Delphi to spend the season in the warm mythical Land of the Hyperboreans. Without their god of light and prophecy, the seers at Delphi did not divine the future until Apollo returned in the spring.
Although anyone could see the Pythia at Delphi for a price — usually an animal sacrifice or valuable votive offering — wealthy people and heads of state paid the oracle well for preferential treatment. Through her, they heard the will of the gods on essential matters, such as military campaigns or auspicious places to found a new colony.
Why Was the Oracle at Delphi Important?
Oracles were important to the Greeks because of their belief that the gods communicated with people directly through mediums. Based on Greek religion, the bodies of the oracles served as vessels that gods could possess to give humans advice or relay the outcome of a war or someone’s fate. The oracles at Delphi specifically channeled the god Apollo.
As the center of the world, the Delphi sanctuary was also integral to Greek religion. Their mythology tells us that long before Apollo came along, the beloved and all-powerful Zeus, the Father God of the ancient Greeks, released two eagles from the edge of the world to find the middle. After flying for a long time, the eagles crossed paths at Delphi. The Greeks dedicated the place with an omphalos, which means navel, in the form of a big rock carved in decorative motifs.
An entire settlement developed around the sacred site at Delphi. Besides the Temple of Apollo, there was a sanctuary of Athena, a theater, an athletic arena, cemeteries, and treasuries that held valuable votives and the rich spoils of wars. The Sacred Way path connected everything at Delphi. However, by far, it was the prophetesses that made the site famous. (History).
Other Oracles Around the World
There were many other, less significant, oracular sites around the world. To cite just a few, for example, in western Turkey, Didyma became the second most prominent oracle to the Greek world, primarily around the Mediterranean. Many high officials, emperors, and even Alexander the Great visited the Didymaean prophetess. At the very ancient Greek acropolis of Argosin, the oracle tasted the blood of a lamb before issuing her prophecies. The Greek settlement of Cumae on the Italian peninsula housed a famous seer, the Cumaean Sibyl, who flew into wild ecstatic fits to utter the words of Apollo.
How Did the Oracle of Delphi Work?
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.
A prophetess at Delphi conducted certain physical and spiritual rituals to prepare for Apollo to possess her. Purification of her body was essential. Thus, she fasted before the days of divination and abstained from sexual activity. On the day of her oracular session, she washed in the sacred Castalian Spring and put on special clothing.
The sacrifice of a goat or sheep ensured that the gods looked upon her favorably. The southwest corner of the temple of Apollo held a special room called the adyton, which sat below the floor of the temple and was accessible by a set of stairs. Bay leaves (laurel) were a sacred symbol of Apollo and hung in the room and also burned as incense. The seer sat on a gilded wooden tripod placed over an opening in the ground from which fumes rose. Not far from the oracle sat the omphalos stone representing the center of the world. The Pythia began by inducing her divine trance.
Was the Pythia on Drugs?
According to various sources, the oracle may have used special narcotic botanicals, such as oleander, intoxicating spring water, or gases that rose from fissures in the ground below her seat. These were likely mind-altering substances. Once fully immersed in a state of divine ecstasy, or manteia, the priestess began channeling Apollo.
Socrates said, “The special gift of heaven . . . prophecy is a madness, and the prophetess at Delphi and the priestess at Dodona, when out of their senses, have conferred great benefits on Hellas [Greece], but when in their senses, few or none” (Klimo, 1998).
“The responses were often obscure and enigmatical, and couched in ambiguous and metaphorical expressions, which themselves needed an explanation,” wrote Oskar Seyffert in A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Mythology, Religion, Literature & Art. Often a priest stood by who would interpret the garbled words of the oracle. Before the end of the last Millenium BCE, the priestesses delivered messages in the form of poetry, called dactylic hexameters, and the priests wrote down the words on leaves or other objects.
Caroline Teti argues that the idea of the drug-induced oracle is overplayed by many modern researchers. She indicates that there are several descriptions of the Pythia as a sane, composed, and calm individual during oracular readings. Those women, she proposes, used divine inspiration rather than drugs to predict the future. Even in the case of a drug-induced woman in a frenzy, her prophecies, assuming them to contain some truth, could not have come from the drugs themselves.
What Were the Fumes Below the Oracle?
Research tells us that the temple of Apollo at Delphi sat over a point where two fissures in the earth cross each other. Analyses of the ground and rocks below the temple indicate the presence of ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas, ethane, and methane. These gases flowed to the surface at this spot and could have resulted in delirium and ecstasy. (Spiller et al.).
Plutarch (c. 46 CE-120 CE), the Greek-Roman biographer, served as a priest at Delphi for 30 years before his death. He reported that the Oracle of Delphi usually seemed as though she had run a race or danced an ecstatic dance. According to him, she sometimes flung herself around and raved in a delirious state. Additionally, he occasionally witnessed a sweet smell that emanated from the oracular chamber. He believed that it originated from geological processes in the ground. (Spiller et al.).
Although the seer may have at times been incoherent due to various intoxicants, some say the prophecies she uttered were often deliberately ambiguous. Lack of clarity and detail helped to preserve the authority of the oracle; it might be better to be vague than to be outright wrong. This strategy may have kept the Oracle at Delphi in high esteem for many years.
Prophecies and Quotes of the Oracle of Delphi
- Around 440 BCE, she uttered one of her most famous statements. She said that there was no one wiser than Socrates.
- She inspired Lycurgus, the eighth century BCE lawmaker of Sparta, to draft the constitution. Lycurgus also introduced cumbersome coins made of iron to discourage greed because the oracle stated:
“Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta.”
- Croesus, king of the Lydians, held a special test for the oracles of Greece around 560 BCE, including the Pythia at Delphi. When he asked her to tell him what he was doing on a particular day, the Delphic Oracle replied:
“I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless. The smell has come to my sense of a hard-shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot:
the cauldron underneath it is of bronze, and bronze is the lid.”
She was correct and became the winner of the ‘contest of oracles.’ Croesus then asked her if he should attack Persia. She replied that a great empire would fall if he attacked. So Croesus did strike, but it was his own empire that fell.
- When Athens and Sparta received word that Darius of Persia was going to attempt to conquer Greece, the oracle prophesied doom for the Athenians:
“Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat. They shiver with dread. The black blood drips from the highest rooftops. They have seen the necessity of evil. Get out, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe.”
- Alexander the Great wanted to know if he would conquer the world. The priestess tried to rebuff him and told him to come back another time. Alexander, furious, dragged her out of the oracle by her hair. She screamed, “You are invincible, my son.” He was satisfied and said, “Now I have my answer.”
The End of Apollo
Thanks to the Oracle of Delphi, the sanctuary became steeped in power, fame, and wealth. Although it had become an independent Greek entity, many groups desired control of Delphi. Thus, from the fifth century BCE until the first century BCE, various groups battled for control of the site. Finally, in 191 BCE, the Romans took Delphi and held it for nearly 600 years. However, in 392 CE, Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan worship across the empire, and the Romans shut down and destroyed the sanctuary. In her final words as the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia uttered, “All is ended.”
Hoyle, Peter. Delphi. London: Cassell, 1967.
Klimo, Jon. Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1998.
Spiller, Henry, Jella de Boer, John R Hale, and Jeffrey Chanton. “Gaseous Emissions at the Site of the Delphic Oracle: Assessing the Ancient Evidence.” Taylor & Francis. Accessed February 27, 2020.
Struck, Peter. “Delphic Oracle.” Greek & Roman Mythology – Tools.