The Oracle of Delphi

The Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was one of the most prominent shrines in the ancient world, and it is hard to think of any shrine before or since that has surpassed it in influence. Delphi is located in Greece, below the Phaedriades Cliff, on the outer edge of Mount Parnassus and about 110 miles northwest of Athens. Delphi is difficult to define since it is both a spiritual location which pre-dates even classical ancient Greece where Apollo’s temple was built – and – Delphi is also considered a town or city of Greece.

More than anything else, Delphi is known as one of the most important spiritual centers in history, largely because of the impressive success of the Oracle of Delphi in providing prophecies and accurate psychic readings for over a thousand years to visitors who came from all over the known world. The Oracle of Delphi was not one woman, but thousands of different women who serve the Sanctuary of Apollo over the course of 1500 years.

Delphi: Origins and Mythology

Greek mythology says that Delphi is navel of the Gaia, the primordial goddess. Mythology stated it was Gaia who gave birth to the universe, to earth, the sky (she created Uranus, her equal and god of the sky). Gaia was mother to the Titans (who ruled before the classic gods of Olympus). And, Gaia was grandmother to Zeus (whom she protected and help bring to power). Legend has it that Delphi was once home to a dragon named Python, who protected the location for Gaia. On behalf of the other gods of Olympus, Apollo, killed Python and established his own sanctuary at Delphi. Although punished for his killing of Python, Apollo nevertheless claimed Delphi to his location where all people could come and seek the advice, predictions and help of the gods. To accomplish this, Apollo chose to speak through an oracle, a medium – nearly always a woman – who was prepared for this task and protected by priests of the temple of Apollo.

pythia Perhaps in honor of Python, or because the reading were given from ‘within the earth’ in the inner chamber of the Sanctuary, the woman giving readings and advice at any given time was honored with the title of Pythia. This title, based on Python, became the origin of the word ‘Pythoness’, meaning a woman who practices divination or has the power of soothsaying. The word was in popular use to describe women who seemed to have psychic abilities from the 14th century until the late 19th century AD.

Archeological evidence tells us that the site of Delphi was inhabited as far back as the 14th century BC. Many scholars believe Delphi had some sort of spiritual significance back before recorded human history. The first historical record about Delphi comes from a Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus who recorded in 100 BC a story he’d heard about the location. The spiritual origins of Delphi, he speculated, began with a shrine was first built at the site after a goat herder fell through a crack in the earth and was filled with a divine presence (Gaia?) which imparted him with great knowledge and/or visions of his own future.

It is likely that the site initially served as a location for the worship of Gaia and/or to seek spiritual guidance. Religious focus shifted to the god Apollo between 1100 BC and 900 BC. The first Sanctuary of Apollo, which was likely made of wood, was constructed around the 8th century BC. This early sanctuary was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt of stone in the 4th century BC. It is the ruins of this 4th century stone sanctuary which still stands at Delphi today.

Pythia, the Priestess of Apollo – Ancient Psychic, Modern Controversies

Pythia was the name given to any priestess who delivered oracles in the Sanctuary of Apollo throughout the history of its operation. The very first oracles were likely given around 900 BC. By 800 BC the oracle was renowned around the Greek world. "Legend has it," writes William J. Broad about the early oracle in his book, The Oracle, "that the Pythia in ancient times would read a petitioner’s mind and respond while the question was unspoken".

Over time, the customs and rituals involving the Pythia evolved. Generally though, ancient writers tell us that Pythia would sit on a tripod in the inner chamber of the sanctuary with a laurel on her head or laurel leaves in her hand (in honor of Apollo) and a bowl of water from a sacred spring. Those familiar with divination feel the Pythia used the bowl of water for scrying. Beneath the tripod it was said that gasses arose from the chasms of the earth. Some of the descriptions of the Pythia’s behavior are similar to what takes place with other trace psychic mediums and channelers which have been recorded through history.

For years, many scholars doubted there was any such thing as vapors rising from the earth beneath the Oracle’s seat within the inner chamber of the Sanctuary of Apollo. The recent discovery that there may well have been geological fractures, and the possibility that ethane or ethylene may have been present in the Sanctuary of Apollo, has lead many to jump to the conclusion that the ‘mystery of the Pythia’ has been ‘solved’. The Oracle of Delphi was ‘under-the-influence’ in some way and was therefore not psychic at all. This makes little sense and appears to be more hype than fact.

First, ethylene was used as an important anesthetic for decades (until less flammable compounds were developed) and there are no reports of it making people psychic. Petrochemicals and hydrocarbons (also mentioned to have been POSSIBLY present in the Sanctuary of Apollo), including ethylene, are released in engine exhaust. Again, no reports of people becoming psychic while stuck in traffic. When a volcano erupts, there are no reports of volcanic gases causing a mass outbreak of psychic abilities. People who visit volcanic sites and/or research them don’t go home with new found clairvoyant abilities. Clearly, for those who reject that psychic phenomenon can be real, any excuse will do to deny such phenomena exists.

What the gasses or vapors beneath the tripod of the Pythia were, we may never know. Maybe there was ethylene. Could the burning of leaves or herbs or some other substance beneath to seat of the Pythia cause the oracle to have a change of consciousness in some way? Maybe. The use of plants, herbs, vapors and so forth to alter consciousness, to create and/or enhance trance like states, are shamanistic practices that are as old as humanity. More, many historians believe shamanistic practices were taking place in Delphi long before the building of the Sanctuary of Apollo. Perhaps Apollo decided to take over those practices which were first attributed to Gaia? It is a possibility.

Returning to historical facts: For centuries the Pythia delivered readings and answered question that ended up proving eerily accurate. Obviously, there was much more to the selection of, and training to be, a Pythia within the Sanctuary. Also, when the Pythia was unavailable, the priests of the Sanctuary of Apollo answered questions using a form of divination (now lost) that involved only yes/no questions and colored beans – this had nothing to do with gasses in the inner chamber of the temple. Also, the Pythia within the Sanctuary of Apollo was not the ONLY oracle who practiced in Delphi. There was also the Delphic Sibyl.

Most people don’t know this, but the Oracle of Delphi (the Pythia), and the Delphic Sibyl, are not the same. These were different women, different ‘offices’ and representing different institutions. Both were highly revered. Both delivered a number of prophecies and predictions that became historically accurate. The Oracle of Delphi, delivered her readings as the Pythia in the inner chamber of the Sanctuary of Apollo. The Delphic Sibyl delivered her readings outdoors on Sibyl Rock near the Sanctuary of Apollo – no tripod, no vapors we know of.

temple apollo

Remains of the Temple of Apollo. This is only a small portion of the Sanctuary of Apollo which was a large complex.

Some scholars believe that the Pythia spoke gibberish and that her incoherent statements were interpreted by the priests and changed into poetic meter. However, many equally credible scholars have challenged this general assumption. It’s possible the Pythia’s speech did seem gibberish to those who came from different linguistic regions of Greece, or who didn’t speak Greek at all. The classical scholar Joseph Fontenrose, for example, argues that Pythia is described by ancient writers such as Herodotus as speaking "sanely and articulately". Ancient art and literature does often portray Pythia in an ecstatic, trace-like state, but not, as a few later writers seem to suggest, as frenzied or hysterical. Interestingly, the known Sibyls of Delphi and elsewhere (again, not related to the Oracle of Delphi) were sometimes reported to also enter ecstatic, trance-like states.

The Importance of the Oracle in Greek Society

The influence that the Oracle of Delphi had on Greek society and history cannot be overstated. The oracle was written about by almost every major ancient Greek historian, and rarely was an important decision made without first consulting her.

Heads of states would come to petition Pythia before starting a war; making a new alliance; founding a new colony; or embarking on just about any new endeavor. Common folks, if they could, also made the pilgrimage in order to ask Pythia for advice and guidance about their own lives. These personal readings involved choices for careers, help with marriages and weddings, dealing with health issues – the same type of everyday, personally important questions people seek help with today.

Even semi-Hellenic countries such as Egypt and Lydia, and later the Roman elite, held great respect for the Oracle of Delphi. For a thousand years it was not unusual for foreign dignitaries to pay a visit to the sanctuary seeking guidance and advice – kings, emperors, spiritual leaders, and even Alexander the Great.

The Predictions of Pythia

As the institution of the Delphic Oracle survived for over a millennium, it should come as no surprise that hundreds of significant oracular utterances have been ascribed to Pythia. And those recorded predications and advice are only the ones that have survived over the last thousand years. Among the most well-known predictions that later came to pass:

– According to the ancient writers Plutarch and Diodorus, one of Pythia’s earliest predictions stated that: "Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta." The ancients saw this statement as predicting the downfall of Sparta following the Peloponnesian War, when Spartan soldiers sent copious amounts of gold and silver home.

– Another impressive prediction was given by Pythia in 480 BCE. After she was consulted by the Delphians for advice on how to defeat the Persian conqueror Xerxes, she reportedly replied: "Pray to the Winds. They will prove to be mighty allies of Greece." The Persians later lost a good deal of their transport vessels and warships during a terrible storm while engaging the Greeks in battle near Cape Artemisium.

– Emperor Nero, a vicious (and some say psychopathic) leader of Rome visited the Oracle of Delphi in 67 AD. Nero was already infamous for allowing a fire to burn a section of Rome "while he fiddled". Visiting the Oracle, Nero was rebuffed:

"Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall! … "

Turns out, Nero had murdered his mother, and many others, to solidify his rule over Rome. Nero was outraged at his reading and had the Pythia burned alive. However, he assumed the number 73 meant that he’d die at 73 – at the time of his reading he was only 30. Instead, Nero’s reign came to a quick end a year later with a revolt by the powerful governor Servius Sulpicius Galba who had turned 73 years of age at the time.

– The oracle also seems to have predicted her own imminent demise when, in 362 AD, she was visited by an emissary of the emperor Julian and said: "Tell the emperor that my hall has fallen to the ground. Phoibos no longer has his house, nor his mantic bay, nor his prophetic spring; the water has dried up". (Ah, so maybe there was something in the water to facilitate a trance-like state?)

For a list of many more of the famous oracles, or predictions, visit List of Oracular Statements From Delphi

The Oracle’s Decline

The Oracle of Delphi fell under Roman control in 191 BC, but it remained an important site and continued to function over the next few centuries. In fact, the oracle was mentioned by several prominent Roman writers of the time, including Plutarch, Ovid, Lucan, Livy, and Justin the historian.

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However, in 86 BC, the Sanctuary of Apollo was plundered and stripped of its many treasures in order to finance the siege of Athens. A mere three years later it was razed to the ground by a Thracian tribe. The Romans attempted some building revivals over the years, but the oracle gradually lost its power and influence as Christianity took hold of the Roman Empire.

Within 30 years of the Pythia’s prediction about the end of the oracular tradition at Delphi, the emperor Theodosius in 393 AD outlawed divination and decreed the closing of all pagan shrines and oracles. By this time the worship of Apollo and the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons had given way to a wave of Christianity. Now, over 1500 years after its decline, the Oracle of Delphi continues to capture our imagination and call out about an aspect of spirituality we seem to want to forget.

Was the Oracle of Delphi the only major civilization guided by divination? Not just guided, but thrived and evolved. Where the Greeks had the Oracle of Delphi, the Romans were guided by Augury, a lost form of divination, and it works out very well for them.

If you’d like to talk with a skilled clairvoyant with experience, give Psychic Adviser Aleah a call at 1-866-407-7164. You may also enjoy speaking with Psychic Elizabeth a call at 1-866-327-9032. Elizabeth is a clairvoyant with a real appreciation for metaphysics.

Resources You May Appreciate

The Oracle – William J. Broad
The Delphic Oracle, Its Responses and Operations, with a Catalogue of Responses by Joseph Fontenrose
History of the Oracle
Oracle of Delphi
Mythology of Delphi