Delphi Site of the most famous and powerful ORACLE of ancient Greece, located about 100 miles from Athens near the foot of Mount Parnassus. Hundreds of correct Delphic prophecies have survived history. Two temples were built at Delphi: the Temple of Athena Pronaia, used for rituals, and further up the mountain the Temple of Apollo where the women oracles did their prophecy.
The Temple of Apollo was built in the sixth century b.c.e. originally for the worship of the earth goddess, Gaia. The name Delphi comes from Delphyne, the great snake of the Mother. Snakes, associated with prophecy and wisdom, were in residence at the temple, and the sacred serpent was a spiraling python. Later, the earth goddess gave way to Apollo when, according to myth, he slew the sacred python.
Gaia, then Apollo, dispensed prophecy and advice through an entranced priestess, the Pythonness or Pythia. Enquirers were chosen by lots and paid fees. While the enquirer remained in an outer chamber, the Pythia descended into an inner sanctuary. Her trance ritual included drinking blood, which was supposed to feed the ghosts of the temple and induce prophecy.
According to some accounts, she may also have inhaled smoke or chewed laurel leaves. Ancient art depicts her as sitting upon a tripod, gazing into a flat dish (see also scrying), and holding a laurel branch. The Pythia’s trance was often accompanied by frenzy and strange moanings and sounds. The sounds and cryptic answers that issued forth were interpreted by priests and turned into hexameter verses.
Originally, the prophecies were given only on the seventh day in a month in spring but later were given once a month, except for three months in the winter. One of the best-known Delphi prophecies was said to have been given to King Croesus of Lydia. After testing a number of oracles in various temples for accuracy, he asked the one at Delphi if he should wage war against the Persians.
The answer was that if he attacked the Persians, a great army would be destroyed. Confi dent of victory, Croesus attacked the Persians, but the great army that was defeated was his own. There is no evidence of a cave or subterranean room at Delphi, despite the belief of some that the Pythia did her work underground. By the fourth century c.e., the Greeks and the Romans believed the Pythia breathed vapors emitted from the rocks to enter a trance.
However, geologists have determined that the rocks, which are limestone, could not produce hallucinatory vapors. No clefts have been discovered that might indicate the escape of gases from the Earth’s interior. However, foliage, branches, or other substances, such as laurel leaves, could have been burned and inhaled. After the fourth century b.c.e., oracles in parts of Asia Minor eclipsed the prominence of Delphi.
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