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The Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea;
I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless.

The Oracle (also called Pythia) at Delphi: Mental images of darkness, pungent fumes and fragrant incenses, cloudy and clouded memories, unintelligible ravings, riddles, profound knowledge and wisdom.

Delphi lies on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece. The town, once called Kastri, used to lie above the ruins of the sacred compound. It was relocated in the 1890s, when serious archaeological excavation began at the ruins.

According to Greek myth, Zeus charged two eagles with finding the center of the earth. He released one to the east and one to the west. They met at Delphi, thus pointing out the center of the earth. A cone-shaped, decorated stone, the omphalos, once stood in front of the Temple as a marker for the "navel" of the earth.

Legends surrounding the Oracle are so tightly intertwined with history that getting an accurate picture is impossible. Even today, scholars argue over whether the Oracle was incoherent, whether reports of her accuracy were overstated, and so forth. Here and there, we get a glimpse, a teasing little glimpse, of Apollo's Pythia at work, but there's even less information on the Oracles who resided at Delphi during the earlier time, when the shrine was devoted to the Earth Mother, Gaea, before the Greeks rededicated it to Apollo. The lack of information about the shrine of the Earth Mother could be due mainly to the fact that it was so long ago that no written records exist, although there is a strong possibility that records did exist once and were destroyed along with the culture that had created them. Virtually all of the information we have about Delphi comes from the writings of the Greek conquerors.

About 1500 BCE, Mycenaeans settled here and continued the maintenance of the shrine to Gaea, Mother Earth. The Delphic sibyls had already gained fame by that time. The shrine prospered until five hundred years later when, as legend has it, Apollo came down from the north and killed Python, who had been guarding his mother's shrine. Apollo claimed the shrine for himself, fired Gaea's sibyls, and installed his own oracles.

More than a few researchers and archaeologists share the theory that this story correlates to the destruction of a peaceful, goddess-worshipping culture by that of warlike people from the north who worshipped a male god. Archaeological evidence shows that Mycenaean societies had constructed no defensive walls as protection. They'd had no need of them before then. It could be that these northerners took advantage of natural catastrophes that affected the region: earthquakes and tidal waves. Added to those calamities was the tremendous eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (Santorini).

There are other clues to the civilization that the Greeks had allegedly overthrown. The snake was a powerful symbol of the Goddess, and for thousands of years it was greatly respected. Eventually, succeeding religions used the snake to represent evil. Consider the biblical story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Was that story written to discourage people from following the advice of the older religion and its sibyls? It's a theory that can probably never be proven. But then, there's no proof to support previous theories either.

Centuries before the birth of Christ, devout pilgrims made the arduous trek to Delphi to ask for advice from the famous Oracle. City states made generous contributions, some even establishing treasuries on the site. For more than six centuries, until the shrine was destroyed by the Christian emperor Arcadius in 398 CE, Delphi truly shaped the history of the world.

The original story is that long ago, a shepherd named Kouretas noticed his goats acting very strangely near a certain opening in the earth. He told his neighbors about it. Some of the curious investigated the fumes, went into trance, and began to mumble prophecies. This went on until a few rash individuals overdid it, got carried away while in trance and, temporarily insane, killed themselves by jumping into the opening. Someone, probably a village official or a priestess of the Earth Goddess religion, appointed a woman to serve as the official sibyl, or oracle. A tripod was rigged over the fissure to provide a bit of security, and more permanent buildings followed: a shrine to the goddess, a house for the sibyl, and so on.

Word of the Oracle spread fast. After the takeover by the followers of Apollo, people traveled to Delphi not only from other areas in Greece, but also from Egypt, Asia Minor, and Italy for private consultations. The economy boomed because of the number of people making the pilgrimage. Donations paid for the building of a theater and a stadium.

The Temple of Apollo was the very center and heart of the shrine, the seat of the Oracle. During the French excavation, a pool connected to an aqueduct was discovered between the Treasury of the Athenians and a portico. This pool plunged under the Temple. Perhaps that was where the Oracle ritually bathed, not in the area open to the public, as some would have it.

On the morning of a day when the Oracle was scheduled to prophesy, a goat would be sacrificed at an altar just outside of the great Temple of Apollo, and its entrails would be examined. If results were favorable, the Oracle would operate that day. She would then complete the prescribed rituals: purification in the Castalian waters, dressing in full ceremonial robes, sometimes chewing a few laurel leaves, seating herself on the tripod and inhaling the foul-smelling vapors.

Before the pilgrim entered the Temple and descended into the smoky enclosure of the Oracle, he had to make an offering. His question was written and given to one of the Oracle's assistants. Then, the pilgrim waited in a corner until an answer was recorded and delivered to him. The entire experience was surrounded by ritual and spirituality. The people truly believed that the god Apollo spoke through the Oracle, merely using her vocal cords to express his wishes and advice.

The Pythia was knowledgeable in many areas: history, religion, geography, politics, mathematics, philosophy, etc. She uttered advice on where and how to build cities, which laws to incorporate, and which prayers to utter. Her predictions were often very shrewdly phrased, which caused many supplicants to misinterpret the advice. The most famous instance of this comes down to us through a Delphic prediction given to Croesus, king of Lydia. In 550 BCE, Croesus was preparing to invade the Persian Empire when he consulted the Oracle about his chances for victory. After sacrificing 300 head of cattle to Apollo, he had gold and silver melted down into 117 bricks, which were sent to Delphi, along with jewels, statues, and a gold bowl weighing a quarter of a ton. With these gifts, Croesus sent his question of whether he should attack Persia.

The Pythia answered that, if he crossed a river, "Croesus will destroy a great empire." Encouraged by this response, he invaded Persia, only to suffer a decisive defeat. The Persians invaded and then conquered Lydia and captured Croesus, who thereafter bitterly denounced the Oracle. He sent his iron chains to Delphi with the question, "Why did you lie to me?" The Pythia correctly answered that her prophecy had been fulfilled. Croesus had destroyed a great empire -- his own.


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