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 site of Delphi came to be the most important oracle of the ancient world. Honored not only by the Greeks, people used to flood into Delphi to hear the prophecies of the god. Traditionally, the only person allowed to enter the 'adyton' (the sacred chamber) of Apollo’s temple was his high priestess, Pythia. Sitting on a golden tripod covered with the skin of Python, Pythia inhaled the fumes coming out from the chasm and chewed laurel leaves. The priests of Apollo were addressing her a question and then, in a state of trance, she was becoming the medium between the world and the god, delivering his word to mankind. The words she was saying were the immediate words of the god, often incomprehensible by mortals. The priests were responsible to document and interpret the sayings of Pythia and afterward handing out the prophecy.
The oracle of Delphi consists of one of the most important and long-living oracles of the ancient world. Prophecies related to the Trojan War, the quest of the Argonauts or Deucalion’s flood were issued there. Since the 8th century BC, the site played a crucial religious and political role among Greeks and foreigners. Only after the domination of Christianity and by the order of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 394 AD, the oracle was officially shut down. European travelers and archaeological expeditions re-discovered the site during the 19th century.
Approximately a 2 hrs car-ride away from Athens city-center, a day trip to Delphi is ideal for a quick getaway from the city. 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.