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Know Thyself

Delphi was one of – if not the – most important sites of the first millennium BC. Disappointing archaeological results in the late 19th century pushed it into the background, but in recent years, the fame of Delphi is slowly rising again, like the vapours once rose from its famed chasm.

Philip Coppens


The Oracle of Delphi. Once, this woman’s utterances could change the destiny of nations – she was not just consulted by leaders of various Greek city states, but also by king Amasis of Egypt, Solon of Athens and king Croessus from Lydia; all visited Delphi, in search of her divine guidance. Or rather: that of the god Apollo, who spoke through her.
The earliest reference to the Oracle is in Homer, whereas ancient stories say how on the side of Mount Parnassos there was a cleft where goats suddenly began crying and leaping about. When the goatherds approached, they experienced the same; man and animal acting as if possessed. Some reported visions, others foretold the future; some apparently disappeared into the cleft, overcome by the fumes, losing sense of this reality and suffering the fatal consequences.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

When word got out, it was believed that the vapours emanating from the chasm put mortals in contact with the gods; the local community thus built a shrine and appointed a woman as the exclusive conduit through which man could communicate with the gods. For her own safety, they made a tripod on which she sat, to make sure she did not fall into the chasm when she became light-headed from inhaling the vapours. Archaeological evidence suggests this worship began ca. 1600 BC and more than 15 centuries later, the priest of Plutarch reported that the name of the goatherd who first discovered the site: Coretas.

From this foundation, the mythological framework of Delphi was constructed. The site was considered to be the “navel” of the world – its centre. The centrality of Delphi was said to have been established by the leader of the pantheon himself, Zeus, by sending two eagles that flew from the edges of the world. As such, many early maps show Delphi as located in the exact centre of the Greek world. Delphi is Greek for “hollow”, derived from the word “delphis”, womb – closely linked with the navel and the umbilical cord, so vital for the bond between child and mother, and hence said to be instrumental in our relationship with the world of the gods.
Delphi was the sanctuary of Apollo. Delphi’s other name, Pytho, means “to rot”, a reference to the decay of the snake’s body that Apollo killed there. The oracle was known as the Pythia. It is clear that mythologically speaking, it was considered to be the “rotting corpse” that provided the fumes that put the Pythia in contact with the gods. We can only wonder whether the Python was therefore similar in nature to the Gorgon, who was said to be able to give immortality or instant death, depending on which side of the body you took the blood from and drank it. Finally, the story is very similar to the foundation mythology of St Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland, a site in origin very similar to the oracle and equally linked with the conquest of a mythical monster, this time conquered by the Christian saint St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

Not all times were perfect for prophesy: goats (the animal that originally discovered the oracle) in the temple forecourt were doused with sacred water and observed to see whether it trembled in the right way – from the legs up. When favourable, the goat was sacrificed at a large stone altar just outside the temple’s front entrance. If unfavourable, no oracular session would occur. Still, on some occasions, these warnings were not heeded and on at least one occasion, one priestess became so intoxicated by the fumes that she died a few days afterwards. Like the Gorgon, the fumes could lead to instant death.
Originally, the oracle held only one session per year: on February 7, the birthday of Apollo. But as her popularity grew, the oracle held sessions each seventh day of the month, between February and November. Unlike other oracular sites dedicated to Apollo, the oracle of Delphi was female. Furthermore, the oracle was a “normal woman”, who came from Delphi herself; she did not have any specific telepathic qualities and to be eligible, it seems she had to refrain from having intimate relations with men (she had entered a holy marriage with Apollo) and have no physical defects. Unlike Sibyls or prophets, who did not require an external stimulant to prophesise, the Pythia was deemed to be divine only when inhaling the divine “pneuma”. The sanctuary had a guild of women whose main responsibility was to keep the sacred fire burning in the temple’s central hearth. Some scholars believe it is from this group that recruitment for the oracle stemmed.
Originally, the Oracle was a girl, a virgin, 13 to 16 years old, but after one visitor had his way with her, it was decided that a woman of about 50 years old would take her place, prophesising while being dressed up as a young woman. Though many if not most women wee married by the age of fifty, it was decided that upon assuming the role of the Pythia, the priestesses ceased all family responsibilities. Some assume the position, once elected, was for life, but this is disputed by others, who suggest that no-one remains fifty forever.
Originally, there was just one Pythia, but Plutarch reported that with the growing popularity, there were three Pythia, two whom participated in the ceremonies, one who was back-up.

Though there was nothing very special about these women, it is clear that some form of training was required, if only about what to do when. We know that the Oracle began her session by purifying in the waters of the Castalia spring, nearby. There are two sacred springs, sitting a few hundred yards distant from the main site itself, in the cleft formed by the mountain. The original spring is the one closest to the modern road – literally, right next to it. A larger, second shrine was dug out from the cliff face, but this site is currently off-limits, because of the danger of falling rocks – which do indeed fall, as any visitor can quickly see.
From here, the Pythia followed a path pretty similar to that taken by the modern tourist, onto the Sacred Way, past the various treasuries that displayed their gifts, upwards to a spring inside the sanctuary, the Kassotis spring, where the Oracle drank its sacred waters. She then entered the adyton, the subterranean chamber, in which she would take the vapours and prophesize.
Legend has it that the Pythia in ancient times would read the petitioner’s mind and respond while the question was still unspoken. This would imply that she possessed some form of telepathy, apparently received from the vapours she inhaled. But later, the authors recounted no such telepathic ability. The petitioner could ask one question, and only one. It appears that the priest then posed the question to the Pythia, who replied. This has lead to various amounts of conjecture by scholars. Some have suggested that the Pythia herself did not remember much if anything at all about her session and hence relied on a priest to record it for her. Others argue that the Pythia just mumbled, talking nonsense, like the early goatherds, and that the priests just invented whatever they desired on the spot, and then sold it off as a prophecy, phrasing it in such a manner that whatever happened, they would be covered. Indeed, it is known that the Oracle rather frequently got it wrong. But when she did get it wrong, it was often believed that it was a faulty interpretation, rather than a “divine error”. It seems the Greek never considered it a possibility that Apollo would wilfully mislead humans. And the Oracle is also evidence of the fact that the fame of a prophet is not linked with the accuracy of the predictions. The best modern-day examples are no doubt Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus, in which the latter’s prophecies are equally obscure as some of the Pythia’s claims, yet when events fail to materialise, they are easily blamed on the “interpreter” – and in the case of Nostradamus, often rightfully so.

This is what happened when the Oracle was in session. On days when the oracle was not in session (the rule rather than the exception), pilgrims could still get divine guidance on simple questions, often by throwing beans with one side saying yes, the other no – a type of divination that could occur anywhere, but which probably felt more profound when occurring in Delphi.
Secondly, as we know, the Oracle worked for only nine months of the year. In winter, November to February, it was Dionysos who ruled over the sanctuary and orgiastic rites occurred in his honour. Dionysos is now often seen as “the dark force” of Apollo, rather than a separate god. Officially, Dionysos was Apollo’s divine half-brother, whose tomb was within the temple at Delphi. Apollo signified light and reason and life; Dionysos darkness and ecstasy and rebirth. Though his tomb was inside the temple, the rites of Dionysios did not occur inside the Temple, but in the Korykian cave, a cave located higher up the mountain, reached by following a seven mile journey up the slope of Mount Parnassos. What occurred here is little known, as the rite was part of a mystery cult with initiates pledging to keep its secret. Plutarch did note that Clea was not only high priestess of Apollo, but also leader of the Dionysian rites, suggesting that when not inhaling the fumes of the Python, in winter-time, the Pythia engaged in the sexual orgies of Dionysos – party time.
Though the Pythia was the oracle, the site itself was run by men. The male priests seem to have had their own ceremonies to the dying and resurrecting Apollo. After 200 BC, there were two priests of Apollo, who were in charge of the entire sanctuary; Plutarch was one of these and is thus treated as an expert on the matter. Before 200 BC, there was probably only one priest of Apollo. Priests were chosen from among the leading citizens of Delphi and were appointed for life. In addition to overseeing the oracle, priests would also conduct sacrifices at other festivals of Apollo, and had charge of the Pythian Games, which were held from the early 6th century BC, every four years. The small theatre and track – the smallest of all ancient sites – above the temple are remnants of this. The site’s location on the slope of Mount Parnassos meant that horse racing could only occur in the valley below. It is believed that thousands of peoples came to these Games. Though Athens may seem distant even to the modern traveller, in ancient times, it was only a three day journey by land – and much faster by boat, which was the preferred method of transport for the ancient Greeks.

The centre of Delphi was, at least with the construction of the temple of Apollo in the fourth century, the Adyton, the subterranean chamber where the Pythia worked. “Adyton” literally means “do not enter” or “inaccessible” and was thus the Holy of Holies. Inside, only the Pythia and the priest were allowed, with the pilgrims required to wait nearby, where some reported that they could occasionally smell a whiff of a sweet odour, believed to have been the vapours rising from the chasm.
Ancient authors described how the Adyton contained a chasm, from which the fumes rose. Nearby or on top sat the Pythia, on her tripod, with nearby one of the omphalos stones, symbolizing the site was the centre of the world; the fumes from the Underworld rose to intoxicate Mankind, who then entered into contact with the world of the gods – Heaven. Some researchers believe that the omphalos stone, sitting on top of the chasm may have collected some of the gases rising from it, which were then released when the Oracle started her session.
When French archaeologists in the 1890s began to excavate Delphi (which involved moving an entire town that had been built right on top of the remains), they soon stumbled upon the remains of the temple of Apollo. They located what they believed to be the Adyton and found not a single trace of a chasm. They almost fell over each other trying to be the first to go public with the conclusion that Delphi had been one of the biggest scams of Antiquity: there was no chasm; the ancient authors had all been lied to by the priests, who were clearly only out to make money, while telling lies. It also damaged the reputation of Plutarch, whose books, including one “On Isis and Osiris”, were deemed to be secondary to the interpretations of Egyptologists.
But the balance would be redressed, though it took more than a century.

Some decades ago, geologist Jelle de Boer trekked around Greece; when in Delphi, he noticed the presence of a fault line. Several years later, de Boer was astonished to find that archaeologists were not aware of this. He teamed up with John Hale in an effort to substantiate whether or not the fault line ran underneath the temple. If this were the case, then it would mean that the ancient authors were almost certainly right – and the French archaeologist wrong. After a few years of research, the team learned that the French team had contradicted themselves and had actually found evidence of a chasm – but which for some reason was not accurately reported in their final analysis. De Boer and Hale found that there were two fault lines that crossed exactly at the location of the adyton and that rocks in its immediate vicinity showed clear signs of ethylene, a product used in the early 20th century in operations. In short: it was now proven that there was a chasm and that there were intoxicating fumes. The ancient authors were right – the French archaeologists very wrong. And the legacy of Delphi could slowly be restored again.
Delphi had two important sayings: “Know Thyself” and “Nothing to excess”. But once de Boer’s research was public knowledge, media and fellow scholars went to excess in their interpretations of the findings – this to the dissatisfaction of de Boer himself. The preferred interpretation was now that the priests had not invented everything – but had nevertheless rephrased the meaningless utterances of the Pythia into prophecies. Though the Pythia was no longer deemed to be a fraud, Delphi was still seen as a ploy to exploit the desire to believe; though it was known as the most important religious centre of Antiquity, for scholars, there was nothing special or divine about it.
This trend was not new. People like Robert Temple tackled Delphi before de Boer’s research came out, suggesting that the eagles were doves and that the priests had an entire network of informants across the Mediterranean; if one nation was defeated in some battle somewhere in Turkey, a carrier pigeon would be sent from that region, with news for the priests of Delphi, which could then pretend to prophesize an event. It bypasses the central issue that normally, the Pythia would have to predict this event long before the battle began, so at best, what the priests gained was to be kept up to date about whether they were wrong or right – and as already mentioned, it is known the Oracle quite often got it wrong.
Today, we have hence once again opted for the safe haven, letting ourselves believe that the entire spectacle of Delphi was a show, with no genuine mystical core. De Boer suggested this was highly unlikely, suggesting the prolonged fame and importance of the site – and generally, we do not seem to heed that other warning of Delphi “Know Thyself”.
If ethylene was the only ingredient involved, then it is likely that very little “magic” occurred on the site. But if other ingredients were added to this, then this cocktail of drugs may indeed have given access to another dimension – as so many drugs in the 1960s apparently performed too. Plutarch said that the Pythia's life was shortened through the service of Apollo. The sessions were said to be exhausting and being administered a small dose of ethylene for five to nine times per year seems unlikely to have had a noticeable effect on a person’s life. It suggests that something more occurred, but that so far, we have not been able to identify the missing pieces of the Pythian puzzle.

Though the adyton was central to Delphi, it was not the sole site of importance. The Rock of the Sibyl sits outside the temple, between the Sacred Way and the temple. Legend has it that Herophile sang her oracles here. Her father was Zeus and her mother Lamia, the first sibyl, who sang of the Trojan war and foretold the fate of Helen. Herophile is normally associated with the oracular centre of Cumae (Italy), where she lived for many years in the crypts and gave oracles. Her inclusion here suggests that Cumae wanted to show that it was an accredited subsidiary of Delphi. But we note that the sibyls were seen as psychic women, gifted with the power to prophecy, not through inhaling vapours, but at any given moment in time. It may shed some light on the early days of the Oracle, when it was said to be able to read the mind of the pilgrim.

From left to right: Treasury of Athens (partial), Rock of the Sibyl, Rock of Leto, wall of Temple of Apollo.

The site is close to a spring, the Sacred Fountain, which emerges from under the temple and appears to return to the earth behind the rock. As water seems to be an important ingredient, the Oracle drinking it, perhaps geologists will one day identify a specific ingredient of this fountain that may have contributed to the Pythia’s ecstasy. In fact, this particular area of Delphi seems to have several intriguing components. Next to this rock is the Rock of Leto, where Leto, mother of Apollo, came with her baby boy and sat with him, instructing him in the art of dragon slaying. From this rock, Apollo took up his bow and arrows and slew Python, to become the Lord of the Word of Zeus. It suggests that the true centre of the world was not the adyton, but this area just outside the temple.

Catherine Morgan has argued that the oracle’s responses in the first centuries of her recorded history tended to be simple and direct, but that latter ones became increasingly vague and ambiguous. Furthermore, it is known that an earthquake destroyed the temple in 373 BC, which was afterwards rebuilt, but the reputation of the Oracle soon went on the decline. Furthermore, the oracle also lost the power to control the major questions of policy; the kings no longer came to consult her; instead, people arrived who were more focused on the practical and the personal – and so the Oracle had to adjust. Though the earthquake may have sealed off the fumes emanating from the chasm (if not closing the chasm), it is equally clear that an institution that had been involved with determining the fate of the world would not easily survive in a time when the pilgrims wanted to know whether their child was going to be a boy or a girl.
Its last recorded response was given in 393 AD, when it reported that the oracle had fallen silent. But though the voice of Apollo may no longer resonate on the grey slopes of Mount Parnassus, recently, it seems to be finding a new breath.