The Delphic Oracle

By Eloise Hart 

The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi was one of the world's most intriguing and unusual establishments. Within that ancient temple-sanctuary located beneath the "Shining Rocks" of Mount Parnassus, the god Apollo spoke through a Pythia, or human priestess, and offered inspiration and guidance to all who sought his aid. For over a thousand years, before and after the time of Christ, the great and less great came to consult him. Pythagoras went there, and stayed to train a Pythia to serve as voice of the god. Herodotus also went there to record what was said. Plutarch served as priest of Apollo for many years. The great lawgivers Lykurgos and Solon obtained suggestions for laws which made their city-states models of justice and freedom. Oedipus, King of Thebes, consulted the Pythia and so did Alexander the Great. Croesus, King of Lydia, sent envoys as did innumerable others of the Greek, Roman, and Christian world. Today tourists travel regularly to Delphi even though the god is silent and few believe, as the ancients did, that divinities communicate with mortals. Yet, in examining the procedures and responses of this most respected of oracles, one wonders if we are wise to close our minds to the possibility of there once having been this form of divine assistance.

Legends tell us that Delphi and its environs had long possessed a mystic power. Diodoros Siculus, Greek historian of the 1st century B.C., for example, wrote -- whether as fact or fiction we cannot be sure -- that a herdsman, following his goats into a rugged glen suddenly became wondrously inspired and saw the future before him. His goats also were affected, gamboling about and bleating oddly. Others even now mention feeling "something" uplifting; and Plutarch, when officiating at the temple at Delphi, explained that "not often nor regularly, but occasionally and fortuitously, the room in which they seat the god's consultants is filled with a fragrance and breeze (pneumatos) as if the adyton were sending forth the essences of the sweetest and most expensive perfumes" (Moralia, 437c).

The area of Delphi originally was called Pytho and belonged to Gaia, goddess of Earth. She and her daughter, Themis, are believed to have spoken oracles ages ago. In the Odyssey, Homer (c. 800 B.C.) has Agamemnon consult the deity there about his prospects in a war against Troy. Earlier, or later than this -- legends are vague about time sequences -- Apollo is said to have journeyed south from the Hyperborean "Land of Truth and Virtue," and arriving at Pytho (Delphi) he slew the great python-dragon that guarded the site and thereon established a sanctuary. This, in the language of myth, suggests that Apollo, a semidivine teacher using the name of the god, revitalized the old and declining serpent- or wisdom-mysteries at Delphi. As representative of Zeus, he offered advice on personal, civil, and sacred matters through Pythias or priestess-prophetesses -- advice that was highly esteemed by the many who visited the Apolline centers, whether at Delphi, at Klaros and Grynia, at Thebes in Boeotia, or elsewhere.

Archaeological findings indicate that the first sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was erected in the 8th century B.C. This may have been the fabled "first three temples of baywood, beeswax and feathers, and bronze" which were destroyed by fire and rebuilt of stone. The crumbling columns and statues one sees there today are apparently the ruins of temples, treasuries, and theater built during the 4th century B.C. However, centuries earlier, Delphi had become a well-established oracular center whose dignity of procedure, and wisdom of pronouncement drew multitudes. Its prestige continued during the entire golden era of Hellenic culture. This was a time when there flourished a galaxy of enlightened men and women whose lives and achievements in the fields of the arts and sciences have become ideals of human endeavor. Solon and Thales lived then, as did Pindar, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides, Pericles, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Phidias, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But these wonder-days declined and with them the flow of Apollo's inspiration. His oracles functioned less often and finally, by the 4th century A.D., when the Roman emperor Theodosius ordered all oracles closed and forbade divination, the god had already withdrawn. When the emperor Julian asked how he could help restore the Pythia to power, Apollo replied: "Tell the emperor that my hall has fallen to the ground. Phoibos [Apollo] no longer has his house . . . nor his prophetic spring; the water has dried up" (Fontenrose, p. 353). Earlier, when Emperor Augustus had asked: "Why is the Oracle silent?" he was told: "A Hebrew boy, a god who rules among the blessed bids me leave this house . . . So go in silence from my altars" (op. cit., p. 349).

What has been recorded of the procedure followed at these oracular centers is fragmentary, possibly because it was so well known no one felt the need to describe it. Centuries later reliable writers culled what they could, while others filled in details from imagination. All agree, however, that young girls were selected and carefully trained so that they could transmit the high inspiration of the god without in any way marring its purity and meaning. Later it was found prudent to use married women -- who were required to live apart from their husbands before and during their oracular duties. In fact, even those who consulted the Pythia were expected to practice chastity, and also to undergo purification, offer sacrifice, approach the holy precincts with reverence and trust and, when waiting in the vestibule, to remain silent, thinking pure thoughts.

The Pythias, keenly aware of the sanctity of their responsibility, endeavored to live accordingly. They purified themselves in various ways, such as drinking from the crystal waters of the Castalian spring, and wearing simple garments as shown in vase-paintings on Greek pottery. On the days of consultation the prophetess burned bay leaves and barley meal on the altar and mounted the "high seat," as the tall tripod was called. Once seated and attended by a priest, she waited for the divine afflatus or "breath" to infill her. When she was ready, inquirers were escorted into her presence one at a time. They either asked their questions orally or in writing. She answered them "directly and clearly." Accounts of these sessions mention that "the enquirer spoke directly to the Pythia (or to the god) and that then the Pythia (or the god) responded directly to him," unless the consultant had been sent by someone not present. In such case the response was copied by the priest who sealed it in an envelope, and gave it to the envoy to deliver to the consultant (op. cit., p. 217). When the sessions were finished the Pythia departed, feeling, as Plutarch says, "peaceful and composed."

It is well when examining the god's pronouncements to bear in mind that what has come down to us may or may not be authentic, or carry high inspiration. Some messages undoubtedly were so lofty and private they were treasured in silence, others have suffered through translation and interpretation, and a few may be pure fiction composed long after Delphi had ceased to function. Thus, like the original recipients, we would be wise to test each statement against our inner judgment.

A general procedure was followed: first, the Pythia announced that Apollo himself was the speaker and therefore the message should be heeded. Then she, as the god, expressed concern for the consultant, e.g., "Happy is this man who enters my house. . . ." Next, she answered the query proposed, and finally gave a message that challenged the recipient's judgment and intuition. As Herakleitos declared: "Nowhere or ever did the God of Delphi either reveal or conceal. He indicates only" (Fragment 93).

An example of this type of pronouncement is that received by a Scythian prince who had asked how he would die and was told that a mus (mouse) would cause his death. Forewarned, the prince not only had his houses cleared of mice but refused anyone named Mus to approach him. He died from an infected muscle in his arm, having overlooked the fact that the Greek word for muscle is also mus.

The majority of questions asked of Apollo concerned personal affairs, though some, from statesmen, sought guidance as to what laws or reforms would benefit their state, or sanction to build a temple, found a city, establish a colony, declare war, or make peace. On occasion the oracle found it necessary to deflate an ego as, for instance, when a wealthy magistrate, after sending Delphi a sizable offering, asked: "Pray tell me, who is the most pious man alive?" Apollo told him it was a peasant who had offered a handful of barley.

The earliest oracles are believed to have been given some time between the 9th and 7th centuries B.C. to the Spartan king Lykurgos who on two or three occasions sought advice on how best to govern his unruly subjects. The responses he received enabled him to establish a constitutional government whose benefits were unique in the history of the Greek city-states. We quote from Diodorus Siculus two examples of quasi-historical responses (Fontenrose, pp. 270, 272):

Q7 [Request for good order.]
R. You, Lykurgos, dear to Zeus and all the gods, enter my temple. I don't know whether to call you god or man, but I rather think god. [You have come in quest of good order. I shall give you an order such as no other city has (Diodoros)].
Q9 What shall the rulers do to rule well and the citizens to obey?
R. There are two ways opposite to each other, one leading to the house of freedom, the other to the house of slavery. Lead the people on the road that goes through courage and harmony; avoid that which leads through strife and ruin.

Thus encouraged, Lykurgos established a council of Elders or Senate, and an Assembly, and when the new constitutional order was functioning smoothly he instituted further reforms sanctioned by Delphi. He was, in fact, so successful in bringing divine law within human reach, that after his death his countrymen built a temple in which they and future generations could pay tribute to this man who in character and wisdom was equal to a god.

The best known Delphic injunction was carved into the lintel at the Temple of Apollo: GNOTHI SEAUTON, Know Thyself. These words may have originated in Apollo's response to a question Chilon of Sparta asked: "What is best for man?" The reply, "Know thyself," is similar to the one believed to have been given to the Lydian king, Croesus, when he was told that he must know himself if he would live most happily. Croesus, a man of action and not philosophical, took this to mean that he should know his own strength, know what he wanted, and should rely on his own judgment. Others have found deeper meaning in these words, taking the "self" to mean the higher self, the true Self; to imply that as man is the microcosm of the macrocosm, he who knows himself knows all.

Many who consulted the oracle missed the god's meaning. Still, Apollo gave help through inspiration and the gentle guidance of ideas, without coercion or any interference in an individual's free will. Nor was there ever any appeal to egoism.

Philosophical responses are recorded:

Q. -- Does the soul survive death or does it vanish?
R. -- While the soul is bound to the body, it yields to mortal ills.
But when it finds release at the body's death, it goes entirely to the sky, always ageless, and remains forever whole. For this is the ordinance of divine providence (Fontenrose, p. 428).

And when asked how men can become good, and godlike, Apollo said: "By acting rightly like the gods, and telling the truth" (Davis, p. 26).

These responses give an idea of the quality of guidance offered at Delphi, and they dispel the erroneous idea that has somehow arisen that the prophetess was in any way intoxicated or in a mediumistic trance. H. W. Parke denies such ideas unequivocally in his A History of The Delphic Oracle (pp. 21-2), saying: "Geologically it is quite impossible at Delphi where the limestone and schist could not have emitted a gas with any intoxicating properties." Nor did any ancient writer mention such fumes. The idea that the Pythia was intoxicated or that she entered a cavern evidently came from the Romans who, when they rose in power, applied to Delphi the features they were familiar with both in the cave-sanctuary of Klaros and the grotto at Cumae. Later writers, unfamiliar with the geological and procedural differences, picked up this explanation and in some cases romanticized it.

Another misconception is that the Pythia's messages were ambiguous and incoherent. Joseph Fontenrose (pp. 223-4) carefully examined the genuine responses and found them unusually clear and direct. What ambiguity he found may have been put there, he believes, by the poets who at one time attended the sessions and wrote the responses in hexameter verse. They, not the Pythia, added the metaphors, riddles, and pompous phrasing. When their services were discontinued, the responses came through again as clear and understandable as originally.

Plutarch, an initiate and careful biographer, explained how the Pythia transmitted the inspiration of Apollo:

the prophetic priestesses are moved [by the god] each in accordance with her natural faculties . . . As a matter of fact, the voice is not that of a god, nor the utterance of it, nor the diction, nor the metre, but all these are the woman's; he [Apollo] puts into her mind only the visions, and creates a light in her soul in regard to the future; for inspiration is precisely this. -- Moralia, "The Oracles at Delphi," V, 397d

Plutarch also rejected the idea that the god in any way possessed the body of the prophetess or that there was mediumship involved. For him the Pythia's inspiration was her reception of divine force, for she had been trained to receive "the inspiration without harm to herself " (op. cit., 438c), and could receive it safely only when she was rightly prepared. An example is often cited of an ill-prepared priestess who was forced against her will and better judgment to enter the adyton and respond to a questioner. She gave a response, but suffered acutely, collapsed, and died a few days later.

The idea that the Pythia was in a trance condition may have come from a misunderstanding of how the Greek words mania and pneuma were used in connection with oracles. While today the term mania refers to various forms of hysteria and insanity, to the ancient Greeks it meant ardor, rapture, enthusiasm, i.e., being infilled with a god. The word pneuma was used for "air," "vapor" and, philosophically, for "soul" and "spirit." When the Pythia mounted the tripod she received, according to Strabo, the pneuma, the divine "breath" or afflatus, a word defined as a divine imparting of knowledge and power and of inspiration, meaning in this case the divine wisdom or breath of Apollo.

Initiates of the Greek Mystery schools were familiar with the idea, having themselves undergone arduous moral, psychological, and mental training and purification in preparation for the sacred experience of transcendent Reality. In similar fashion, the Pythias, by subjugating a portion of their nature, were able to receive and pass on to others something of this import and wonder.

Has this oracular gift been withdrawn from mankind? Many are asking today if it is still possible to receive such inspired advice. Perhaps it is: if we take to heart Apollo's injunction, Know thyself, and turn inwards for counsel. What we make of that counsel, however, is our challenge. Lykurgos used what he received to raise the level of Greek thought and conduct. Croesus, blinded by ambition, misunderstood, and destroyed his kingdom. Others found in the words of the god whether they came through oracle-priestess, prophet, or their own inner source -- guidance of a very high order. 

Barr, Stringfellow, The Will of Zeus: A History of Greece from the Origins of Hellenic Culture to the Death of Alexander, J. J. Lippincott, 1961.
Davis, George, George Hoyningen-Huene and Hugh Chisholm, eds., Hellas: A Tribute to Classical Greece, J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1943.
Fontenrose, Joseph, The Delphic Oracle, Its Responses and Operations, with a Catalogue of Responses, University of California Press, 1981.
Parke, H. W., A History of the Delphic Oracle, Basil Blackwell, 1939.
Plutarch, Moralia, tr. Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb Library Series, Harvard University Press, 1962.
Pollard, John, Seers, Shrinesand Sirens, Allen and Unwin, 1965.
Purucker, G. de, The Esoteric Tradition, Theosophical University Press, 1935.
Severy, Merle, "Quest for Our Golden Heritage" in Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World, National Geographic Society, 1968.


(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1985; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)

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