The sanctuary of Delphi, the seat of the oracle of Apollo, is located at the foot of Mount Parnassus in central Greece. Who was Apollo and how did Delphi come to be one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world?
According to ancient Greeks, Apollo was the god of the sun and light and patron god of all arts. By being one of the oldest gods of the Greek pantheon, he was one of the most complex yet popular deities of the ancient world. Always depicted as a radiant, handsome young man, his most common attributes were the bow and arrow and the ancient musical instrument of kithára or lyre. When people used to call upon him, they were often using the epithet Phoebus which literally translates to 'bright'. Alongside with his twin sister, Artemis, the goddess of hunting, they are the never-aging, teens of the Olympians.
Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, the granddaughter of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). When Hera realized that Leto was pregnant by her husband, she immediately demanded from all the Lands of the world to not allow Leto to give birth on them and then forbid the rest of the Gods to help her. The heavily pregnant Leto wandered the world in vain, not being able to find a place to hide from the jealous Queen of the Gods. After her many requests, the floating island of Delos took pity on her and allowed her to give birth on its land. By the time Leto set foot on Delos, four pillars emerged from the earth to immobilize the island. After nine days of sheer agony, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, came to Leto’s assistance and the twin gods, Apollo and Artemis, were born.
Apollo learned the art of soothsaying from the goat-like god, Pan. During his journeys around the world, he visited the place where people believed the navel of the earth was located. There, an ancient oracle stood, terrorized by the presence of the beast Python, a frightening serpent responsible for the devastation of the valley of Kríssa. Apollo faced and slaughtered the beast, liberating the land and the Nymphs of the area. On the spot where fumes from a chasm on the surface of the Earth were emitted, he founded his oracle and established his cult, and this is how the panhellenic oracle of Delphi came to be. According to some myths, the god transformed himself into a dolphin, transporting the first priests of his cult from the island of Crete.
After his victory over Python and the conquest of the lands of Delphi, Apollo overly proud for himself started mocking Eros, the god of love:
“What are you doing with powerful weapons, naughty boy?”; “that equipment of yours are fitting my shoulders, which are able to give certain wounds to the wild animals, and to the enemies, which recently killed the swollen Python with countless arrows, the Python who was pressing down so many acres with his disease-bearing stomach! You will be content to provoke some loves by your fire, not to claim my honors.”
Eros, insulted by Apollo’s words, decided to revenge the god by making him mad in love with the Nymph Daphne. Even though Apollo had his heart set on her, she refused to give in to him. Blinded by his passion, Apollo chased poor Daphne through the woods of mount Parnassus. Eventually, the god captured her but she desperately screamed for her father, Peneus, requesting her salvation. Immediately, her body got petrified and thin bark covered her skin. Her arms turned into branches and her hair transformed into the foliage. The god vowed to love her forever and after granting immortality to the laurel tree his love had turned into, he made a crown out of its leaves. The Bay laurel became his sacred tree and legend has it that these leaves never decay.
The Oracle of Delphi
Delphi has long been considered the center of the earth and as they said, Zeus himself called it the ‘navel of the Earth’. According to legend, Python, a huge snake, guarded the place until he was killed by Apollo. When the god's arrows pierced the reptile, his body fell into a crack in the ground, and as his carcass rotted, vapors rose. Anyone standing above this crack suddenly fell into an ecstasy that was often violent.
They believed that these people were possessed by Apollo who flooded them with his divine presence. During the Mycenaean Age, these bizarre events attracted the worshipers of Apollo and slowly the primitive sanctuary became an altar and later, in the 7th century BC, a temple that housed a single person that served as a bridge between him and the other world. It was the fortune teller, Pythia, who took her name from the big snake.
Pythia played an ancient and very important role - a role that transcended itself and passed into the legend. Because she was very important in Ancient Greece, she had to be completely unknown and had to break all ties with her previous life for the sake of Apollo and his divine status. Pythia also served in an ambitious and religious culture this visual and verbal connection with the gods was treated with the utmost respect. Because it was believed that during the winter months Apollo left the temple, Pythia received questions from people from all of Greek society during the nine warmest months of the year, on the seventh day of each month.
Pythia was purified by fasting, drinking holy water, and washing her body in the sacred Castalia Fountain. She then sat on a tripod above the crack, holding bay leaves in one hand and a container of spring water in the other. As the fumes from the ancient defeated reptile enveloped her, she passed into the kingdom of the god.
People flocked from all over the world to talk to the woman who communicated with the gods and to travel to Delphi many traveled for days, even weeks. According to some narrations, the fortune-tellers did answer, although there are reports that Pythia uttered incomprehensible words, which the priests "interpreted" in the form of verses.
After receiving his oracle, the beggar returned to his homeland to do what he had been told. Pythia received many visitors in the nine days it was available, from farmers desperately asking for their harvest to emperors asking how they had to fight their enemies, but its spells were not always clear.
Very soon no one made a serious decision without consulting Pythia. Apart from Greeks, foreign officials, leaders, and kings traveled to Delphi for an opportunity to ask their questions. Those who had money paid to bypass the long queues of pilgrims. Thanks to donations, the temple grew in size as did its reputation, and Delphi prospered by attracting visitors to the Pythian Games, a forerunner of the Olympics.
Approximately a 2 hrs car-ride away from the Greek capital, a day trip to Delphi is ideal for a quick getaway and a must-visit destination when you visit Athens. Enjoy the majestic scenery of central Greece and explore the rich history of the site by wandering around the ruins of the oracle of Apollo, or by discovering some of our Greece tours.