The landscape of ancient Greece was scattered with religious sites and sanctuaries, some of which were also home to oracles. Each oracle was associated with a particular deity. Zeus, the king of the gods, had oracular sanctuaries at both Olympia and Dodona. However, the most important oracle throughout Greek history was the Oracle of Delphi. Here the divine wisdom and prophecies of the god Apollo were conveyed by the mysterious priestess, the Pythia. People would visit Delphi from across Greece and beyond in the hope of receiving the words of Apollo.
What Exactly Was the Oracle of Delphi?
Consultation of the gods was one of the cornerstones of ancient Greek religion. People believed that establishing a line of communication with a deity could grant them access to divine wisdom. Some also hoped for the personal favor of a deity and would bring offerings to appease the god or goddess concerned.
As the god of prophecy, Apollo was the natural choice for those wishing to know what lay ahead. But, more often than not, the consultations at Delphi could be better described as the imparting of divine advice rather than prophecy. Visitors would ask a specific question and the Pythia would answer, sometimes in the form of a riddle or line of verse.
The Pythia was more like an agent of Apollo rather than his priestess. She had the unique role of being the vehicle through which words were transmitted from god to mortal. Before each day of consultation, she would purify herself in the Castalian spring near the sanctuary in readiness for her task.
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The process of consultation was elaborate and limited. Access to the Oracle of Delphi was granted only once a month for nine months of the year. It was believed that Apollo spent the winter months in warmer climes. This meant that there were only nine available days per year. Anyone could visit the Pythia, but there was a hierarchy depending on where you came from. Visitors ranged from private individuals to city-state representatives and wealthy, exotic kings. But, in seeking the word of Apollo, all mortals were equal.
Why Was the Oracle of Delphi so Important?
The sanctuary at Delphi likely originated from a small, relatively insignificant settlement. Little is known about its early history and the ancient sources all differ on the site’s origins. Some say that it was the location of the tomb of the god Dionysus. Other sources state that Delphi was the home of the ancient mother goddess Gaia. This ancient lineage and the early links with important deities later added status to the oracle and its statements.
Delphi’s unique location was also fundamental to its success as an international religious site. The ancient Greeks believed that Delphi marked the navel of the known world and was established as such by Zeus. An unusual marker stone, or omphalos, was found at the site and is thought to indicate the exact central spot.
Delphi’s mountainous location was also on an important trade route from Corinth to northern Greece. This meant that visitors could access the remote site with relative ease.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Delphi was independent. The site was not attached to a large city-state but was protected by a council of representatives, known as the Amphictyony. This meant that Delphi could take a neutral standpoint in internal wars and national crises.
The importance of the Oracle of Delphi would have been clear to any ancient visitor. Huge levels of wealth were on show at the site. Temples, treasury buildings, and vast statues were dedicated by cities across Greece and beyond. Everyone wanted to have a presence at Delphi as a way of marking their own power and importance in an increasingly competitive world.
1. Lycurgus of Sparta: A Most Unusual Consultation
Lycurgus holds a special place in the history of ancient Greek civilization as the reformer of the Spartan state. He lived in the 8th century BCE, but few concrete details are known about his life. His visit to the Oracle of Delphi is one of the earliest and strangest on record. The historian Herodotus gives an account of the episode, written three centuries later. No tangible context is given for Lycurgus’ consultation and the words of the Pythia are highly unusual:
‘Lycurgus, here you are. You have come to my rich temple,
Beloved of Zeus and all who dwell on Olympus.
Should I address you, in my prophecy, as a god or as a man?
I think it would be better to call you a god, Lycurgus’
Herodotus, The Histories, 1.65
The Spartans believed that after this statement the Pythia gave instructions for how to reform Sparta and turn it into a great and powerful state. Lycurgus is said to have used this advice to make fundamental changes to Spartan society. He adapted every part of life, from education to marriage, with the sole focus of creating a military state populated by outstanding warriors.
This was a remarkable episode in the history of the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia explicitly addresses Lycurgus as a god. This level of deference is virtually unique in oracular statements and suggests that Lycurgus is equal to Apollo himself. This unusual meeting also marked a turning point in Spartan history. It paved the way for Sparta to become one of the greatest city-states in ancient Greece and gave Lycurgus almost mythical status.
2. Solon of Athens: Laying the Foundations of Democracy
Sparta was not the only city-state in Greece with much to thank the Oracle of Delphi for. Athens also experienced major social and political reforms as a result of a visit to the sacred site. Around 594 BCE Solon, a leading light in Athenian politics, consulted the Pythia about the state of his home city. At that time, the Athenian society was dominated by the aristocratic elite and the city was ruled by a series of tyrants. Solon felt the time had come for drastic changes and asked the oracle for advice.
One of the responses was as follows:
‘Position yourself now amid ships, for you are the pilot of Athens. Grasp the helm tight in your hands; you have many allies in your city.’
Solon interpreted this as an opportunity to steer Athens away from its current political system and not rule as a tyrant himself.
Solon made far-reaching constitutional reforms that benefited the wider populace and not just the elite. These changes included the introduction of jury trials, proportionate taxation, and forgiveness of prior debts to allow the poor to rebuild their lives.
In thanks to Delphi, a new law required magistrates to swear a public oath on entering office always to uphold justice. If they broke their oath, they were to dedicate a life-sized statue of solid gold at Delphi.
The full extent of Solon’s laws and reforms took time to materialize. But over the next century, they could be seen to pave the way for the first democracy to flourish. Therefore, Solon’s visit to Delphi had a wide-reaching effect on the future of western civilization and its political institutions.
3. Croesus of Lydia: What to Avoid When Consulting the Pythia
Croesus was king of Lydia, an area that is now part of modern-day Turkey. He ruled from around 560 to 546 BCE and is known as one of the richest men who ever lived. The ancient historian Herodotus gives a detailed account of his life. Herodotus places great emphasis on Croesus’ arrogance which is attributed directly to his power and wealth. This is highlighted very clearly in his visits to The Oracle of Delphi.
Early in his reign, Croesus wished to discover which was the most accurate of all the oracles. He, therefore, devised a test to see which gave the most precise answer. He asked each oracle to say what he was doing at a set point in time, a question to which only he knew the answer. Unsurprisingly, the Pythia provided the correct answer. Croesus was duly impressed and sent a large amount of gold and silver dedications to Delphi.
Soon he began to formulate plans to invade his powerful neighbor Persia. So he went to Delphi again to seek the Pythia’s advice, this was Apollo’s response:
‘If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great empire.’
However, Croesus made a fatal mistake and failed to consider this response carefully. He simply assumed that the reference to ‘a great empire’ meant Persia. Not long into the subsequent war, Croesus overstretched his army and soon found himself defeated and captured by the Persians. In a twist of fate, Apollo eventually took pity on him and saved him from execution.
Croesus’ story provides a warning on how not to interpret oracular statements. Herodotus’ account shows the importance of careful consideration of the divine word and the dangers of arrogant assumptions.
4. Athens and the Persian Wars: A Case of Careful Interpretation
Many oracular statements from Delphi were ambiguous in tone and content. Some scholars believe that this is because the word of a god was not meant to be understood directly by mere mortals. Human knowledge and understanding were limited in comparison to divine wisdom. Therefore careful interpretation was necessary.
A prime example of this was a statement given to an Athenian delegation shortly before the Persian invasion of southern Greece in 480 BCE, led by King Xerxes I. The Athenian contingent of the allied Greek forces was anxious for advice from the oracle about the war’s outcome.
First, the Pythia told them unequivocally to retreat and escape while they still could. The Athenians were appalled by this and consulted again. This time the response was longer and more complex. Two lines stood out in particular:
‘Far-seeing Zeus gives you … a wall of wood.
Only this will stand intact and help you and your children.’
Herodotus, The Histories, 7.141
This vague reference to ‘a wall of wood’ caused much confusion when the embassy returned to Athens. Some believed this meant the wooden stockade surrounding the Acropolis. Others believed the phrase referred to wooden trireme ships and that they should build up their fleet and engage at sea.
In the end, it was the latter that held true. The Athenians readied their ships and managed to defeat the Persians in the sea battle of Salamis later in 480 BC. This event marked the beginning of the Persian withdrawal from Greece and the return of freedom to the Greek world. The oracular statement from Delphi was crucial to the Greeks’ success. Equally important was the careful consideration and interpretation of the divine words of Apollo.
5. Alexander the Great: Conflict with the Pythia
As we have seen, some of the great figures from Greek history had important visits with the Pythia based on mutual respect and understanding. However, Alexander the Great had a less than harmonious relationship with the Oracle of Delphi.
Early in his reign in 336 BC, the young Alexander went to Delphi to consult the Pythia on his proposed campaign against Persia. But he arrived on a day not allocated for consultation and he was asked to come back another time. This angered the young King of Macedonia. Legend has it that Alexander forced the Pythia to come out and provide a statement. The sources vary on the nature of this force. Some state that Alexander held the Pythia by the hair and dragged her to the Temple of Apollo for his consultation. Once in situ, the Pythia is said to have simply declared:
‘Boy, you are invincible.’
Alexander was satisfied by this response and duly began his successful attack on Persia. Modern scholars dispute that this meeting ever really took place. Many believe that it was a fictitious account devised long after the true extent of Alexander’s military success had become apparent.
Even if this meeting was a myth, the king never made a dedication in person at Delphi. His most lavish gifts were always focused on the oracle at Olympia as if to snub Delphi (Scott, 2014, p. 164). It appears that during his incredible life, there was no love lost between Alexander and the Oracle of Delphi. His invincibility was also short-lived. Alexander died of an illness at the height of his success at the age of just 32.
The Oracle of Delphi and its Role in the History of Ancient Greece
The Oracle of Delphi produced countless statements across its thousand-year history. But from just the five episodes explored above, its pivotal role in the history of ancient Greece is clear. The Oracle played a part in many of the key episodes which shaped ancient Greek civilization. From the age-defining Persian wars, the ultimate battle between East and West, to the vast expansion of the empire by Alexander the Great. But perhaps even more important was its assistance in the development of states, societies, and cultures. City-states such as Athens and Sparta owed a great debt to Delphi. In particular, ancient Athenian politics and culture continue to have a profound influence on western civilization to this very day.