Delphi, pronounced Dell-Fee in Greek, is the location of the famous Oracle. West of Athens and situated on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassos, it was an important crossroads in the ancient world. The Greeks thought that Delphi was the middle of the Earth and called it “Omphalos” or, “the navel of the world”, giving Delphi an even greater ancient, sacred importance.
Mythology has the Greek God Apollo slaying the dragon Python, the son of the old God Gaia, on this site. At that time,
this symbolized the end of old Gaia religion and the ushering in of the new Olympian Gods religion in Greece. Although there were other Oracles throughout Greece, Delphi was the most sacred of them all.
Delphi sits on a fault fissure that some think had gasses escaping which may have caused the Oracle to go into a trance allowing it to prophesize. The belief that Apollo was answering the questions asked of the Oracle was the main reason that Delphi was the most sacred, most visited and more famous than the others. Kings and Heroes from the Trojan War, and even Roman Emperors, came to Delphi for answers. The answers that they got were open to interpretation. When the King of Athens asked how to defend Athens from the invading Persians after Thermopylae, the Oracle told him to surround the city with a wooden wall. He took this to mean he should build a great navy of warships, which did defeat the Persian fleet at the navel Battle of Salamis, leading the Greeks to win that war.
Delphi continued to be the go to place for answers until 362 B.C. when a questioner came seeking insight from the Oracle only to be told that Apollo had left Delphi, thus ending Centuries of prophesizing. Some believe that an earthquake in 373 B.C. may have caused the fissure to close, stopping the escaping gasses.
Delphi fell victim to raids by barbarians and Romans alike, destroying the temples and carrying off its art and statues. In 390 BC the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I destroyed the Temple of Apollo, with most of the statues and art, in the name of Christianity. Other zealous Christians completely destroyed the site in an attempt to remove all traces of Paganism. After centuries of earthquakes and landslides ancient Delphi was covered and lost to time.
The site was then occupied by the Village of Kastri. Before excavations could be done the village had to be moved. The villagers resented this until an earthquake damaged a good portion of the town and they were then offered a completely new village to move to. Today, this is the town of new Delphi, immediately to the west of the archaeological site, and they are capitalizing on the tourist trade that come to visit the famous archeological site. The recovery of the Delphi site began in 1893 by the French Archeological School. The ruins at Delphi seen today come from the 6th Century BC when it was at its height of influence and power, however the site could have been occupied as early as the 9th Century BC.
Delphi had four areas: The market street, the Treasuries area with the “Sacred Way”, the Temple level and, above that, the theater, stadium and hippodrome where the festivals and Pythian Games were held.
After passing through the market, pilgrims going to see the Oracle continued to climb the side of the mountain, past the Treasuries and along the “Sacred Way” to the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle.
It was in the buildings called “Treasuries” that the offerings from the different cities to Apollo were kept. Each city had their own, and each tried to out do each other in design and size of their treasury.
The next level above the Sacred Way was the Temple to the God Apollo and it was in there that the Oracle sat and delivered her prophecies. Inside the temple was the sacred chamber were the Oracle sat on a tripod style seat positioned over the fissure, allowing the raising gases to envelope her. Those Pilgrims inquiring answers would speak through a hole in a rock wall separating them from the Oracle. It was said that the Oracle’s responses were kind of a “ranting” that could only be translated by the priests.
Although Delphi is mostly known for its Oracle, it was also a major cultural center in Greece. Music and other festivals were celebrated each year at Delphi and every four years they held the Pythian Games which rivaled those at Olympia. At the Olympic Games the winners where given Olive Branches, while for the Pythian Games the winners were presented Laurel Branches, because it was said to be a sacred plant by Apollo.
Penny, our tour guide for Delphi said that each of the winners where told not to just relish on their present win and keep bragging on it, but to work for improvement for the future, the term used was “Don’t rest on your laurels.”
On a personal note, in 1964 when my family went to the New York World’s Fair. In a gift shop, I bought a bust of what I thought was Apollo.
At Delphi I found out that I was wrong. It was a bust of one of the best preserved bronze statues found there named “The Charioteer of Delphi”. This life size bronze was thought to have been erected somewhere between 478 and 474 BC and discovered in 1896.
Delphi is a fantastic walk through the past and is well worth the long climb up the side of the mountain.
Next: On to the Peloponnese, Olympia and a 21st Century surprise!