Oracle of Delphi: Why Was It So Important To Ancient Greeks?

The Oracle of Delphi was one of the most powerful religious institutions in ancient Greece. Read on for why the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi held such importance.

Nov 29, 2020By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek
orestes apollo oracle of delphi
Red-figure bell-krater depicting Orestes visiting Delphi to request help from Apollo and Athena, 4th century BC, via the British Museum, London


I know the number of grains of sand and the extent of the sea;

I understand the deaf-mute and hear the words of the dumb.

The words of the Oracle of Delphi in Herodotus, The Histories, 1:47


What exactly is an oracle? Or, more specifically, what was an oracle in an ancient Greek context? The communication of divine knowledge from god to mortal, also known as divination, played a major role in ancient Greek religion. Divination took many forms, from the study of sacrificial entrails to the interpretation of the flight of birds. But perhaps the most important form of divination was the practice of consultation of a god through an intermediary. This intermediary was known as an oracle.


Oracular consultation took place at permanent sites and sanctuaries scattered across ancient Greece. The king of the gods, Zeus, had prestigious oracles at both Olympia and Dodona. There were also oracles of Apollo as far afield as Didyma in Asia Minor and on the island of Delos. However, it was the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi that was the most renowned and enduring of them all.


ancient greek religious sanctuaries
Map of ancient Greek religious sanctuaries, via Ancient History Encyclopedia


The Oracle of Delphi has fascinated civilizations as both an institution and a concept across the millennia. There are a plethora of ancient sources which refer to the oracle, from the 5th-century BC poet, Pindar, to the 2nd-century AD geographer, Pausanias. Delphi has also captivated later artists and writers. Lord Byron even left some graffiti on the stones of the gymnasium when he visited the site in 1809. All of this literary attention highlights Delphi’s importance, but why exactly did it hold such a special position in the ancient Greek world?


Oracle Of Delphi: Center Of The Ancient World

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The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, photograph by author


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Any visitor to the site of Delphi today will be struck by its remarkable location. As the mists clear and the sacred ruins reveal themselves, there is a palpable sense of otherworldliness about the site. It is definitely easy to see why the ancient Greeks called it the ‘navel of the world.’


One story tells of how Zeus released two eagles, one from each end of the Earth. At the point at which the eagles crossed, he threw down a stone to determine the center of the Earth. The stone landed at Delphi. This stone is thought to be represented by a mysterious marker excavated at the site, known as the omphalos, or navel stone. However, some ancient sources state that this stone was actually the marker for the tomb of Dionysus.


omphalos stone delphi hellenistic era
An omphalos stone from Delphi from the Hellenistic era, via Archaeological Museum of Delphi


Located on a rocky ridge beneath Mount Parnassus, Delphi is a site that does not lend itself to human occupation. It is a place belonging to the gods. The sources vary wildly on the origins of Delphi. Some state that Gaia, the mother goddess of Earth, was the first inhabitant, long before Apollo. This ancient lineage gave a certain level of prestige to the site.


Despite its lofty mythological origins, it is likely that Delphi started off as a small, relatively insignificant settlement. However, it was located on an important trade route from Corinth to Northern Greece. In the 8th century BC, increased levels of trade around Greece meant that Delphi gradually became more widely visited. By the 5th century BC, the oracle of Delphi had become the most well-known sacred site in Greece.


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Silver Greek coin issued by the Amphictyony depicting Demeter and Apollo seated on the omphalos, 4th century BC, via the British Museum, London


One of the many reasons why Delphi became so important was due to its independence. Delphi’s location in Greece meant that it was not attached to any of the large and powerful city-states, such as Athens, Sparta or Corinth. This allowed it to maintain neutrality which, in theory at least, made its sanctuary accessible to all.


Of course, its importance and growing wealth made it a target for attacks from time to time. But it was protected and managed by a council, known as the Amphictyony. This council was made up of representatives from across Greece. Key members included those from Thessaly, Athens and Sicyon. The Amphictyony played an important role in the growth of the sanctuary across the centuries.


The Pythia Of Delphi

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Red-figure drinking bowl depicting the Pythia giving a consultation at Delphi, 5th century BC, via Staatliche Museum, Berlin


Once someone had made the journey to Delphi, often lasting for many days, what happened next in the consultation process? Access to the Oracle was actually very restricted, it was this element of exclusivity which added significantly to Delphi’s importance.


The Oracle was only available for consultation on one day of each month. For three months of the year, during winter, there were no consultations. It was believed that this was because Apollo sought warmer climes during the colder months. Consultation was, therefore, only possible for nine days of the year.


Even on these nine days, a further process took place to determine if Apollo was happy to be consulted. Cold water was sprinkled on a sacrificial goat. If the goat shuddered then Apollo had given his consent and the day could proceed as planned.


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Bronze rod tripod similar to that used at Delphi by the Pythia, 6th century BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


On each consultation day, there was a queue of consultants, each of whom had to purify themselves in spring water near the sanctuary. Delphians went first, followed by people who had a representative in the Amphictyony and then all other Greeks. Non-Greeks were admitted last.


Each consultant had to pay money and offer a pelanos, a type of sacrificial cake, before the consultation. A further sacrifice was burned as an offering to all the gods and also to the people of Delphi. It was then time for the consultant to meet the priestess of Apollo, otherwise known as the Pythia and Oracle of Delphi.


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Priestess of Delphi by John Collier, 1891, via the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


Little is known about the Pythia but we do know that all Pythias had to be Delphian women from respected families. Once chosen they would serve for life. By the 4th century BC, the Pythia lived permanently in a house at the sanctuary. On consultation days, she would bathe in the Castalian Spring near the sanctuary. She would then proceed to the temple and burn a sacrifice to Apollo of laurel leaves and barley meal.


The sources vary wildly about what happened next. The general consensus is that the Pythia received consultants while seated on a tripod in an inner part of the temple. Later ancient sources mention a chasm in the floor of the temple. From this opening, some sort of vapor apparently rose up and was inhaled by the Pythia. She then entered a type of trance and uttered forth the divine words of Apollo.


Consultations With Apollo At Delphi

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The so-called Belvedere Apollo, 2nd century AD, via the Vatican Museums, Vatican City


Clearly, the greatest attraction of Delphi was the fact that it offered access, albeit indirectly, to the god Apollo. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, written around the 7th century BC, offers an explanation for Apollo’s connection with Delphi. In his search for a location for his oracle, he eventually decided on Delphi due to the beauty of its position. But first, he had to defeat a monstrous dragon who lived nearby. After killing the dragon with his arrows, its body rotted in the scorching sun. The Greek for ‘to rot’ is pythein and this is thought to be the origin of the Pythia’s name. Delphi itself was formerly known as Pytho in the Bronze Age.


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Apollo and Python by JMW Turner, 1811, via Tate, London


But there are also different versions of the story. Alcaeus, a 7th-century BC lyric poet, tells of how Zeus ordered Apollo to set up an oracle at Delphi. Different again is Aeschylus’ version, who in his tragic play Eumenides explains that Apollo received Delphi in succession from Gaia.


The stories may vary but the endpoint of each version is the establishment of a place of prophecy at Delphi. Apollo is well-known as the Greek god of prophecy, with the ability to see into the future. However, it is perhaps more accurate to describe the consultations at Delphi as the imparting of divine advice.


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A rare example of a white-ground bowl depicting the god Apollo pouring a libation at Delphi, 480-70 BC, via Archaeological Museum of Delphi


Consultants visited Delphi with requests as individuals and also on behalf of entire city-states. The most common requests for help from individuals involved personal questions, such as those regarding marriage and job prospects. Sometimes they wanted to know if they should embark on a long and dangerous journey. Requests for remedies for disease and illness were also common.


Consultants who visited the Oracle of Delphi on behalf of their city were often seeking advice about serious disputes between communities. Cities also wanted to know if Delphi would look kindly upon their development of colonies abroad. Delphi’s own rise, particularly in the 6th century BC, coincided with the rise of democracy and the growth of urban areas across Greece. One of Delphi’s most important strengths was its ability to help to establish law and order. In this way, the Oracle of Delphi became a major power-player in the development of the Greek world.


Interpreting The Oracle Of Delphi

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A stele inscription dedicated to Plutarch by the people of Delphi, around 100 AD, in the Archaeological Museum of Delphi


The form of Apollo’s responses, via the Pythia, is one of the most hotly debated topics for scholars of Delphi. Plutarch was a 1st-century AD philosopher and also a priest of Apollo at Delphi. He tells us that responses from the Pythia were famously ambiguous in Delphi’s heyday. Some describe her words as riddles that needed to be interpreted by the recipients. Others refer to them as a form of hexameter poetry.


Some scholars believe that priests, who worked alongside the Pythia, helped in the process of interpretation. But this cannot be definitively proved. It is also unclear whether responses were written down and then passed to the recipients for them to interpret. What is clear is that, in its ambiguity, the Oracle was highlighting the fact that divine words were inherently unintelligible to mortals. They could not be received directly, divine wisdom needed to be carefully interpreted first.


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Marble bust of Herodotus, 2nd century AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Throughout Delphi’s history, there were many who fell foul of the Oracle’s ambiguity.  Herodotus, writing The Histories in the 5th century BC, chronicles some fascinating episodes of misinterpretation at Delphi. Perhaps the most famous of them all involves Croesus, the incredibly wealthy king of Lydia.


Croesus tried to test Delphi’s Oracle by asking it to say what he was doing at a particular point in time back in Lydia. The Oracle correctly replied that Croesus was cutting up a tortoise and a lamb and then placing them in a bronze cauldron. Emboldened by this accuracy, Croesus then asked the Oracle if he would be successful in a war campaign against Persia. The Oracle replied that Croesus would ‘destroy a great empire.’ Arrogantly, Croesus assumed that this meant he would succeed. He failed to realize that this great empire was actually his own and he soon became enslaved by the Persians.


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Red-figure vase painting depicting the defeated Croesus on his funeral pyre, before he is saved by Apollo, 5th century BC, via The Louvre Museum, Paris


By dealing with arrogant individuals in this way, no matter how important they were, the Oracle asserted its power. The examples of the likes of Croesus served as a warning to others. The Oracle of Delphi did not take well to manipulation and careless interpretation.


The Oracle Of Delphi’s Great Riches

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Reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi by Albert Tournaire, 1894, in École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Art


By the 5th century BC, Delphi had become the most important oracular sanctuary in Greece. It attracted visitors from across the Greek world and beyond, from places such as Asia Minor and Egypt. Around 590 BC the first Pythian Games were also held at Delphi in honor of Apollo. These athletic contests became one of the great Panhellenic games-festivals of Greece and occupied a place on the circuit alongside the Olympic Games.


One of the reasons why Delphi had been able to establish its reputation and become so important was because of its growing wealth. The site was ravaged by fire in the 8th and 6th centuries BC. But, thanks to some very generous support and donations, bigger and better sacred buildings were built in the aftermath. These included the vast temple of Apollo and also numerous city-state treasury buildings.


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Two marble archaic kouroi statues depicting possibly Cleobis and Biton, around 610 BC, via Archaeological Museum of Delphi


Delphi’s riches came from the offerings and dedications made by individuals and city-states. Many of these offerings came from Eastern kings. The large number of these foreign dedicators reflected the Oracle’s international importance. Croesus of Lydia, for example, gave a solid gold lion statue and large mixing bowls in gold and silver.


Among the most famous dedications were a pair of archaic style statues given by the city of Argos in the late 7th century BC. These statues are thought to be either the twins Castor and Pollux or the brothers Cleobis and Biton. Cleobis and Biton belonged to an Argive myth in which they showed great devotion to both their mother and the goddess Hera.


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Bronze statue of a charioteer, 470 BC, via Archaeological Museum of Delphi


Another incredible offering was given by Hieron I, a tyrant of Syracuse. In 470 BC, Hieron won the chariot race at the Pythian Games. In thanks to Apollo, he dedicated a life-size bronze chariot complete with four horses and a charioteer. To date, only the charioteer has been discovered. The statue takes pride of place today in the museum at Delphi.


Delphi’s beautiful statues and precious objects reflect the desire of people and cities to have a permanent presence at the sanctuary. For the ancient Greeks, Delphi was more than just a sacred site. The Oracle held an unrivaled position of prestige and one that would last for over a thousand years. With its ability to influence powerful individuals as well as large city-states, the Oracle of Delphi played a crucial role in the development of Western civilization.

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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.