A Visit to the Oracle at Delphi
adapted from my book, Astrology and Divination
copyright Robert M. Place 2006
It was Hippalus’s first visit to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This was the most important thing his father, Ampelos, had ever asked him to do and, as you can imagine, he was a little nervous, but he was well prepared. Hippalus knew that this was important, because Ampelos was a merchant and would not think of launching a major sea voyage without the approval of the oracle of Apollo. Would the voyage be successful at this time and bring his father riches? And, how can the favor of Apollo be maintained? These were the questions that Hippalus was instructed to ask.
By sunset, Hippalus had climbed Mount Parnassos. There, nestled at the top beneath the twin cliffs, glowing red with the sun’s last rays, was a magnificent collection of statues and Doric style buildings. The buildings included the main temple or sanctuary, an outdoor theater, several smaller buildings that served as storehouses for the treasures that the grateful had gifted the Oracle, and several detached porches with tiled roofs supported by rows of columns for outdoor events. Hippalus stood there taking it in. He was afraid to make a sound.
To the ancient Greeks this was the center of the world, the most sacred spot on earth. According to legend, this fact was determined by Zeus himself, the king of the gods, who let two eagles fly in different directions around the world until they came face to face at the very center. This auspicious spot was marked with a carved, domed stone called the “omphalos” in Greek, which meant the navel of the earth. It was said that the omphalos was carved from the stone that Zeus’ mother, Rhea, had fed to her husband, Kronos, as a substitute for her son when Kronos had attempted to eat all of his children. Later Zeus forced his father to spit up the stone along with all of his brothers and sisters, and now it was housed in the inner sanctuary of the temple called the “adytum,” along with the laurel tree sacred to Apollo. Hippalus bowed his head in respect. He wore his best white linen tunic and he had plenty of gold coins to pay for his stay in the inn and to pay for the consultation tax, called the “palanos,” which was the equivalent of ten days pay for the average worker.
On the morning of the seventh day after the new moon, a lucky number sacred to Apollo, Hippalus paid the tax and purified himself in a ritual bath in the Castalian Spring, which was at this time enclosed in a bathhouse. Then, dressed again in his best tunic and a crown of laurel leaves, like the wreaths found on the heads of ancient statues, he joined a group of men and climbed up the flagstone steps, known as the Sacred Way. It zig zagged first to the west then to the east, passing treasury buildings and rows of statues placed there to thank Apollo for help in the past. As Hippalus read the inscriptions, he became more and more sure that Apollo would help his father. At the top the men formed a circle outside the temple where a fire blazed on a great stone altar designed to accept sacrifices to the god. Some of the men were from familiar cities like Athens and Sparta and some form distant colonies across the sea or foreign states like Egypt, but all had questions for Apollo’s oracle and all were sure the god himself would answer their questions through the oracle.
Because it was a regular consultation day, the temple priests provided the goat for the sacrifice. The priests sprinkled the animal with holy water causing it to give an affirmative nod, which was interpreted as a sign of approval so that the ritual could continue. After it was butchered, a thighbone was burnt on the altar, along with a handful of barley from each of the participants. The goat’s organs were examined for further signs from the god, but the rest of the meat was roasted to provide for a feast later in the day. Rituals like these were the only time that Hippalus ever ate farm-raised meat and he looked forward to it. At home, it was more common for him to eat fish of wild animals that he hunted.
After the prayers and offerings, the questioners were led by a group of priests and other officials into the first chamber of the temple. Some of the priests were called the “prophetai,” the origin of the English word prophet, but, unlike prophets, they were not actually the ones who would receive the visions from the god. Their job was to interpret the visions and utterances of the prophetess, who was called the “Pythia.” It was she who would actually listen to the god and, because of that, she was the most influential woman in all of Greece.
At the entrance to the inner sanctuary, or adytum, Hippalus placed an offering of some meat on the offering table and then entered the inner room with the other men. Their order of entry and, therefore, the order that their questions would be answered was determined by numbered stones, called lots, that the men had to choose. The men could not see what stone they were choosing and this may seem to have been an order created by luck, but to Hippalus and the other participants this was yet another way of determining the will of Apollo. Everything at the temple was designed to be in harmony with Apollo’s will.
As Hippalus stepped down into the adytum, he detected a faint sweetness in the air. This odor was a gas coming form deep within the earth under Mount Parnassos. It was a sure sign that the god was present and that the prophecy could begin. Hippalus sat on a stone bench along the wall with the other participants. From this location they would be able to hear the prophecy but a screen separated them from a view of the three-legged stool that was the seat of the Pythia.
The name of the Prophetess, the Pythia, was derived from Python, the name of a huge dragon or serpent, who, in ancient times, was said to have guarded the sanctuary. At that time the sanctuary belonged to the Earth goddess Gaia and the dragon was hers. In modern times, the Python has lent its name for use as a name for the largest known species of snakes, but the ancient Python was even larger. It was said that when Apollo took control of the oracle he slew the Python who blocked his way and cast his lifeless body into a fissure in the earth found within the temple. The fumes from the decaying body of the Python were said to give the inner temple its sweet smell and were responsible for putting the Pythia in a trance so that she could see Apollo’s messages. In honor of his victory, Apollo was given the title “Pythios,” all things Delphic were referred to as “Pythian,” and, as we said before, the prophetess was called the Pythia.
The Pythia whose turn it was to be the prophetess on this day was one of three who lived in the temple. She was a tall woman in her 50s, who was chosen for this role from the women of Delphi because she was a good person and because of her natural ability to fall into a trance. She took her role very seriously and she had also purified herself in the Castalian spring on that morning. Then, she donned her sacred robe, and offered a sacrifice of barley and laurel in the eternal fire on her own altar within the temple. Holding a holy laurel branch and a bowl of holy water she stepped down into the chamber and climbed into the high three-legged stool that stood over the fissure in the floor. As the sweet smelling gas pored over her body she fell into a deep trance. She could see Apollo beckoning her through a mist and sending her meaningful pictures in answer to the questions that the participants asked. She stated what she saw as clearly as she could but, because of the visual dream-like nature of the messages, the priests called the prophetai had to help the questioners to understand the answers. When it was Hippalus’ turn to ask his questions, she answered that she saw a blue sky swept over the sea and a rain of gold. A prophetai told Hippalus that a sea voyage would be profitable at this time, but to maintain the favor of Apollo he had to make the proper sacrifice to the God before he and his father set sail and again on their return to show their thankfulness.
What History Has To Say
For a thousand years the Oracle at Delphi was the most respected and popular oracle and temple in ancient Greece. You might think that because it was valued so highly only people who were considered upper class would be allowed to ask questions, but as long as they had the resources to make the trip and pay the tax, anyone could consult the oracle from common farmers to kings and ambassadors representing the city-states. Some of the famous men who consulted the oracle were Socrates, Sophocles, Alexander the Great, and Croesus of Lydia. Sophocles, the 5th century BCE playwright, wrote that a challenge to the oracles was a challenge to religion itself. To the Greeks, the fact that Apollo was willing to talk to the people through the Oracle was the proof of his existence.
According to Iamblichus (250-325 CE), in his biography of Pythagoras, around 570 BCE, the great phiolospher’s father, Mnesarchus, was asking the oracle a question about a business venture, similar to the one asked by Hippalus in the story, when the Pythia spontaneously provided an additional prediction. He was told that when he returned from his voyage he would find that his wife had birthed a son, who “would surpass all other in beauty and wisdom.” In honor of the Pythia, he named his son Pythagoras.
In myth, the oracle originally belonged to the earth goddess, Gaia, or, in some accounts, the goddess of Justice, Themis, and the oracle and was taken over by Apollo at a later date. However, historians tell us that the Oracle was dedicated to Apollo, the god of light, logic, art, and music, from its origin at the end of the 9th century BCE until 393 CE, when it was closed by the Christian emperor Theodosius. As the god of the sun and light, Apollo brought forth clarity and understanding and always spoke the truth. The Python, the dragon who was slain by Apollo, was a symbol of the darkness that blocked the light and therefore stopped the messages from getting to the people at Delphi. By killing the Python, Apollo allowed his light to shine through and allowed the people to hear the oracle. He is one of the many mythic heroes, who slayed dragons.
Although ancient writers wrote more about the Oracle than most subjects, many of the details of the worship and practice at Delphi are still disputed by modern scholars. For example, the first French archeologists who examined the remains of the temple in the 1800s found no evidence of the fissure and the escaping gas that the ancient writers mention. By the middle of 1900s, most scholars believed that the gas was an invention of the writers and not based on fact. Modern archeologists examining the site, however, such as the team lead by John Hale, from the University of Louisville Kentucky, have found a fissure in the sanctuary that emits ethylene gas. Ethylene has the potential to cause visions if enough gas is breathed in. Some of the details in the account we have just read may be disputed by some scholars, but it is one version of what is likely to have happened on a consultation day at the oracle at the height of its operation in the 5th century BCE.