Friday, December 4, 2009

The Delphic Oracle

The Delphic Oracle is one of the most famous oracles of Ancient Greece. Located at the town of Delphi on Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis in Greece, it is site of the Temple of Apollo.

Legend has it that Apollo came to Delphi, in some stories he appeared in the shape of a dolphin carrying Cretan priests on his back and in others he walked there to pick laurel, which is a sacred plant and has many links to his life and worship.

The Delphic Oracle was originally said to be inhabited by an enormous female serpent or dragon, called Pythia, who spoke the prophecies of Gaia and guarded the oracle as the centre (sometimes referred to as the navel) of the earth and the whole universe. Apollo killed the serpent, casting it into a great chasm on which the Temple of Apollo was built and claimed the oracle from Gaia (although there are also stories where the oracle was handed on via various bequest with Apollo eventually being given it as a birthday present).

The role of Pythia was then filled by a woman, chosen from the Delphic community. In some stories she had to be a young virgin but later as a celibate post-menopausal woman. Pythia was upon a brass tripod above the chasm, which emitted vapours, which were said to be caused by the decomposing corpse of the serpent although modern theories have suggested it may have been ethylene gas or methane or that the chasm may have been a seismic ground rupture.

Pythia was said to then enter a trance like state, sometimes also enhanced by chewing bay leaves, in which she would pass on the messages of the oracle.

There are different stories as to how often this occurred, some say only once a year on Apollo’s birthday (the 17th of the ancient month Bysios, which corresponds to our current second part of February and first part of March) and then later to the 17th of every month, except in Winter when Apollo left Delphi.

In some stories, Pythia spoke in garbled language that was interpreted by the attending priests, however most say that her words were fully comprehensible but the meaning was cryptic and this is what the priests interpreted.

Click here for an online Delphic Oracle - it's not very convincing but it's still fairly interesting nevertheless.