Women in ancient Greece led largely domestic lives. They were excluded from public life with one fundamental exception — religion. Women often played an important part in religious festivals and the worship of various deities. Priestesses were also common in a range of cults across the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. But perhaps the most prestigious and powerful of all priestesses was the Pythia of Apollo.
Apollo, as the god of prophecy, was seen as a source of guidance. As a result, a number of religious sanctuaries across Greece became established as sites for the oracles of Apollo. The Oracle of Delphi developed into the most well-known and influential of all the oracles. People would come from far and wide to consult the oracle at Delphi and it was the Pythia who met with them. The Pythia acted as the essential mouthpiece for the divine words of Apollo. But who exactly was this mysterious woman?
Prophetess or Priestess? Who was the Pythia of Delphi?
The Pythia held a unique position in ancient Greek religion. Ancient sources use the following terms to describe her: hiereia (priestess), mantis (seer), and prophetis (prophet). There is no consistency in the use of these terms, so the role of the Pythia appears to have been largely undefined. The Pythia also did not have an administrative role, as far as we can tell. This function was carried out by the overarching council, the Amphictyony. They were responsible for the upkeep of the site, its finances, and the Pythian Games. It is perhaps best to describe the Pythia as an agent of Apollo, since she “acted” on his behalf in the process of consultation.
In ancient Greece, it was the custom for male deities to have priests and female deities to have priestesses. But the Oracle of Delphi was an exception. The reason for this perhaps lies in the origins of the site (Pomeroy, 1975, p.33). Delphi’s history was complex but ancient sources viewed both Gaia, the Mother Goddess, and Themis, goddess of law and order, as early occupants of the site. Both were archaic female deities and this may account for the corresponding gender of the female Pythia. Interestingly, the earliest source on Delphi, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, makes no mention of the Pythia at all. Instead, it claims the early oracular responses were provided via a laurel tree, whose words were then interpreted by male priests. This does account, however, for the strong links at Delphi with laurel leaves, often associated with wisdom in Greek culture.
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The etymological root of the name “Pythia” also derives from an origin story associated with Delphi. It was said that Apollo slew a resident monster in order to claim the site of Delphi as his own. Afterwards, its body was left “to rot” in the sun. The Greek verb puthein means ‘to rot’. This word is believed to be the root of both the archaic name for Delphi, Pytho, and the Pythia herself.
Little is known about individual Pythias and the lives they led. Ancient sources state that she had to be a local woman, over the age of 50 who had lived a good life. She was also expected to be chaste and hold the post for the rest of her life. Plutarch says that the Pythia was selected from a good family but not necessarily an elite one. This suggests that the Pythia was selected based on personal qualities rather than status.
A Day in the Life of the Pythia
The Pythia’s day began before dawn. At some point in the 4th century, it is believed that she was given a house within the boundaries of the sanctuary at Delphi. This would have been paid for out of the large treasury for the site.
Her first task was to purify herself, which she did in the sacred waters of the Castalian Spring nearby. Her personal adornments would include a wreath of laurel leaves worn in her hair, another link to the laurel tree. Before any consultations, a small animal, such as a goat, would be sacrificed. This would allow the priests or attendants of the Pythia to check the omens for the day ahead. The way in which the animal behaved or even the color of its entrails would be used as an indication of any portents.
The Pythia held consultations in the Temple of Apollo. This structure was built and rebuilt multiple times over the centuries due to fire and earthquake damage. However, the remains of the 4th-century-BCE version can still be seen today.
There was a specific room inside the Temple, called the adyton. This was where the Pythia received visitors. She sat on top of a bronze tripod, like that pictured above, while the room was scented with burning laurel leaves. The historian Plutarch was actually a priest at Delphi himself in the second century CE. His account provides some useful information on the day-to-day routine of the site, albeit from a late period. Interestingly, he tells us that at the height of the popularity of the Oracle of Delphi there was often more than one Pythia. This allowed some relief from the sheer number of visitors.
Visitors to the Oracle of Delphi
The Oracle of Delphi was available for consultations on one day of each month for nine months of the year. This meant that visitors only had nine opportunities to seek advice from Apollo per year. There was also a strict hierarchy in terms of the order in which people were seen.
Those at the front of the queue had what was known as promanteis privilege. This included citizens of Delphi and people who had a special connection to the site. Next came citizens of states with a representative in the Amphictyony council, followed by all other Greeks. Foreigners came last and, interestingly for a female-centered sanctuary, women were prohibited from entry. All consultants had to pay a fee (which varied according to their status) and offer a pelanos, a type of sacrificial cake. They also had to burn an offering to all the gods and the people of Delphi before their turn came.
A diverse range of people visited Delphi, from private individuals to ambassadors representing entire city-states. The Pythia also received some of the most famous names from ancient Greek history. Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta’s highly efficient military regime, is said to have received advice from the Pythia. The reformer of Athenian politics and father of democracy, Solon, also visited Delphi for instructions. Kings of great realms, such as Croesus of Lydia and Alexander the Great, also graced the Oracle with their presence. This was often in an attempt to get advice about the expansion of their empires.
In its later years, Roman emperors also visited the Oracle of Delphi. Emperor Nero visited Delphi sometime after 54 CE and took part in the Pythian Games. Emperor Hadrian, a great admirer of Greek culture, consulted the Oracle in 125 CE. It is said that he asked the Pythia a series of questions about the epic poet Homer (Scott, 2014, p.224).
The Mind-Altering Vapors of Delphi — Fact or Fiction?
One of the most hotly debated topics involving the Oracle of Delphi is the state of mind of the Pythia when she uttered the words of Apollo. Later ancient sources claim that she was in a state of wild frenzy which resulted in incoherent words and statements. It was believed that this was due to intoxication from vapors rising from a chasm in the floor of the Temple of Apollo. Strabo, an ancient geographer, and historian, referred to these vapors as pneuma — the ancient Greek word for gas but also breath and spirit.
Some scholars argue that this state of intoxication was contrived by later writers to add to Delphi’s enigma and allure. There is also no mention of the Pythia’s intoxication from earlier ancient writers. Herodotus, for example, certainly refers to the ambiguity of some oracular statements but does not imply incoherence from the Pythia.
In 1996 a team of geologists and toxicologists carried out a survey of the site in an attempt to unravel this mystery. They discovered an intersection of two geographical fault lines meeting almost directly below the Temple of Apollo. From this area, they also detected levels of ethylene, a hydrocarbon gas that can cause intoxication when inhaled. This fascinating postscript perhaps vindicates some of the later ancient writers, and accounts of the Pythia’s mysterious demeanor when offering her statements. You can read a full report on the survey here.
Perialla the Pythia — Scandal at Delphi
Little is known about individual Pythias and their lives. Many ancient writers, including the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, mention the Pythia, but few go beyond generic representations. In The Histories, by Herodotus, the Pythia is referred to over 40 times. This highlights the important position she held in the Greek world as a whole. Herodotus’ Pythias interact with kings, lawmakers, and state founders. She is presented as a confident and assertive woman who speaks to men as an equal. On one rare occasion, Herodotus mentions a Pythia by name. His story of Perialla the Pythia involves a tale of deception and a rather humiliating fall from grace.
Cleomenes I was king of Sparta from around 519 BCE. Sparta was ruled by a dual kingship and Cleomenes’ fellow king was Demaratus. Cleomenes wished to get rid of Demaratus and so he decided to try to negate his claim to the throne. To carry out his plan, he needed the help of the Oracle of Delphi. He enlisted an influential Delphic man named Cobon. Cobon was paid to bribe the Pythia — at that time, Perialla — so that she would give a statement saying that Demaratus was not of royal descent.
In his text, Herodotus uses the Greek verb for “to persuade” when describing the bribery of Perialla. The meaning is unclear in this context but it is likely that money was handed over. Unfortunately for Perialla, word of her bribery got out. As a result, Cobon was banished from Delphi, and Perialla was removed from office. King Cleomenes himself also had to flee Sparta.
The Importance of the Pythia
The wide-reaching influence of the Oracle of Delphi put the Pythia in an elevated position unrivaled among women in ancient Greece. Over its thousand-year history, the Oracle was consulted on the founding of new states and colonies, as well as the outcomes of wars and invasions. It also played a very important part in the fundamental political reforms of Greek states, some of which continue to impact the western world even today.
Powerful figures from Greek and Roman history felt the need to be associated with Delphi. As we have seen, it was the Pythia who was at the heart of pivotal consultations. She was the woman who met with kings, tyrants, oligarchs, and emperors. Unlike other women in Greece, she spoke to these men from a position of power. Her words were revered and acted upon — they were, after all, believed to be the very words of the god Apollo.