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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

Ecstacy in Delphi

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

It's not what you may think. Well, it kind of is. Do fumes count?

To this day, Delphi is one of the most frequently visited sites in all of Greece and has been for over two-and-a-half millennia. It is an ancient city located 100 miles northwest of Athens, where the cult of Apollo flourished and made it a premier religious and intellectual center. Since the 8th c. BC, the ancients pilgrimaged to Delphi primarily to visit the Temple of Apollo and to consult with the priestess of the temple, the Pythia of Delphi. The Pythia acted as an ORACLE, who COMMUNICATED with the Greek god Apollo and offered advice, foretold the future, and interpreted both current and past events. That art of oracle delivery stemmed from man's belief that the world was ruled by supernatural and invisible powers. That belief led to man's need to reach and interact with those powers in order to learn their will. Such interaction was facilitated via mediation by priestesses who could either communicate directly with the gods or interpret their divine messages. Even Alexander the Great visited the Temple of Apollo to ascertain the god's advice prior to conquering the East.

Shown below is an imagined reconstruction of the Temple of Apollo as rendered by Georgios Antoniou, along with photos of its ruins as they currently exist.

How did the Pythia Communicate?

Classical accounts stated that the priestess, or PYTHIA, purified herself in the nearby Castalia Spring, then entered the innermost sanctuary of the Temple of Apollo, called the ADYTUM. There she sat on her prophetic tripod, chewed on laurel leaves, and inhaled sweet-smelling gases which put her in an ecstatic trance-like state. While in the TRANCE she supposedly communicated with Apollo and uttered unintelligible words. Special priests, the Prophetai, interpreted her ambiguous mutterings and delivered them in poetic form to the consultant seeking enlightenment. The Pythia would communicate with Apollo only one day per month (great work hours!), specifically on the 7th day (believed to be Apollo's birthday), excluding the three winter months "when Apollo wasn't there" (a fair-weather god??).

Circe Invidiosa, 1892, by John Waterhouse (L) and Priestess of Delphi, 1891, John Collier (R)

What types of questions did the visitors ask? Clear ones, such as ...

Will harvest be good?

Shall I start a war?

Who will win the war?

Shall I found a colony at location X?

Shall I invade empire X?

Will I produce an heir?

How do I produce an heir?

What type of answers did the visitors receive? Cryptic ones, left to the interpretation of the consultant.

Asked, 'Shall I attack Persian King Cyrus?' Answered, 'A great empire will fall.'

Asked, 'Who will win the war?' Answered, 'A great king will win the war.'

Asked, 'How could I have children?' Answered, 'Do not open the foot of the wineskin until you return home.'

Why in Delphi??

There exist COUNTLESS temples to Greek gods, including to Apollo, throughout Greece. So why was the site in Delphi the most renowned location for these ancient oracles? Great question!! Marked by the OMPHALOS (shown below), Delphi was believed to be the navel or center of the world as determined by the god Zeus.

The town of Delphi and Apollo's Sanctuary were built on the southern slope of the Parnassus mountain range and sit on a geological fault. Recently scientists, historians, archaeologists, geologists, chemists, and even toxicologists have combined their expertise to elucidate whether there could be truth to the accounts of the Pythia or more likely just ancient legend. The researchers found that the vapors beneath Delphi were real! Likely, fissures along the fault allowed the natural vapors, including the sweet-smelling gas of ethylene, to emanate from the depths of the earth.

From vibrant Delphi to ancient Ruins

The ancient Greeks were so vested in the advice from the gods, that they built hundreds of monuments and statues as well as offered countless treasures to Delphi to gain favor with the gods. This was also a way for the rival city-states to show off their power, wealth, and status, as representatives from locales throughout Greece and the known world of the time, all made their way to Delphi. Their offerings were displayed in individual TREASURIES, each built by various city-states. Hence, there was an Athenian treasury, a Siphnian treasury, a Theban treasury, a Syracusan treasury, a Corinthian treasury, and such. Stemming from the art of oracle delivery, Delphi became a wealthy and vibrant city. A theater and a stadium were built to entertain both the residents and visitors of Delphi. The town hosted the Pythian Games held every four years, second only to the Olympic Games, consisting of religious events at the Sanctuary, music and drama contests at the theatre, as well as athletic events like track, field, and equestrian contests in the stadium. Winners were awarded a laurel wreath, which was Apollo's sacred tree. Later, the Romans, who also followed the cult of Apollo, built an Agora and paved a walkway leading to the Temple of Apollo, called the Sacred Way.

A rendering by Albert Tournaire is shown below, of how he imagined vibrant Delphi.

With the onset of Christianity, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in 394 AD banned the PAGAN practice of oracle delivery in Delphi. Many of the temples, treasuries, and monuments were destroyed. With time, by the 7th c. AD, the site of Delphi became abandoned.

Excavations beginning in the late-1800s revealed the ruins as we see them today. Below are the ruins of the Siphnian treasury, the Athenian treasury, the Roman agora, the theater, and the stadium, respectively.

The archaeological site of Delphi is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, the RUINS of the Roman agora, the stoa, the Sacred Way, a few of the treasuries, six Doric columns from the temple of Apollo, the theater, and the stadium stand. Columns from the circular temple to Athena referred to as the THOLOS, can also be seen. The Archaeological Museum of Delphi at the base of the ruins houses many of the excavated treasures. Two of the more famous pieces on display in the museum are the Sphinx of Naxos and the impressive bronze Charioteer of Delphi.

DELPHI is approximately a 2-2.5 hour drive from Athens. It can conveniently be visited from Athens en route to METEORA, another UNESCO destination. Both Delphi and Meteora, located in the more mountainous regions of the country, are sites that deserve to be added to any travel itinerary for Greece.

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