Delphi: Ask the Oracle

June 25, 2019

 ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

​June 23, 2019, Delphi, Greece — Remind me to travel only to places I can fly to direct, non-stop, from Boston. I was only 2 hours late getting to Newark for my connection to Athens, where I rendezvoused with 21 other YACsters (YAC = Yale Alumni Chorus) who were also going on the pre-concert-tour tour. We boarded our bus for the 3-hour drive northwest to Delphi, home of the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle of Delphi — the place Alexander the Great went for a consultation before he waged war.​ 


​Time permitting, I will ground you in a bit more Greek history later... but here’s an interesting bit of modern history I learned en route: During World War II, Greece was a major route for German materiel going to North Africa. Once we left the highway and hit the two-lane mountain roads, we passed numerous roadside monuments to Greek partisans and citizens killed by the Nazis in retaliation for attacks on the occupying German soldiers. Our excellent guide, Kriton, told us that for every Nazi killed, between 30 and 50 villagers were executed. By the end of WW II, 250,000 Greeks had been executed, 250,000 had starved; a total of 8% of the population died. Kriton called it a ‘holocaust.’



Today only a few remnants of structures at Delphi remain on the actual site; there are more in the Museum. The entire site was dedicated first to Mother Earth and later to Apollo, son of Zeus, when he had descended to earth. He was The Man: the sun god, the god of light, and knowledge, and music, and harmony, and balance and order, and moderation, and purification. There had been a temple to Apollo on the present site since the 6th century BCE. Two earlier ones were destroyed (by an enemy raid and an earthquake) and the third is the one we visited — but only thanks to the French.


The first Westerner to see — and record — the extant temple complex was an Italian merchant, in 1436 — before the 1500 earthquake that began the destruction of the structures, and the subsequent mudslides that began to cover the remains. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the British poked around what was left — Lord Byron signed a column in 1809. In the late 1800s, another earthquake (and mudslides) finished the near-total obliteration and burial of the original complex. 


In 1892, French archeologists noticed the tops of an old boundary wall sticking above the ground. The dark gray at the top of the ‘polygonal’ wall below is all they saw...


What lay beneath? To find out, the archeologists moved the village of Kastri (Greek for ‘castle’), which had been built over the site, to a location down the hill, changed its name to Delphi, and began to dig. What we see today is the result of their excavations and the subsequent re-erection of columns and restoration of a Treasury and other structures.


Besides being the site of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi is famous for its Oracle, whose ‘existence’ predates the ancient Greeks’ polytheistic religion and their devotion to Apollo. How’d that happen?


A local goatherd noticed that when his goats got too close to a gap in the rocks from which vapors vaped, they got very ‘happy.’ This place had powers. Good place for a temple. There were many temples to Apollo around Ancient Greece — but this one had an Oracle. Will my crops be good this year? Ask the Oracle. Will we win the war? Ask the Oracle. Etc.


Much wealth was donated to Apollo by anyone who wanted his blessing and a good word from the Oracle. To contact the Oracle, you went through a lengthy purification process, made a donation, sacrificed an animal (usually a goat), then waited in line before you walked The Sacred Way up to the Temple.​ All that remains is the temple floor (see top photo) and five columns re-erected into their original positions. 


The Oracle only worked on the 7th day of one month — Apollo’s birthday. The lines got so long, he extended his hours to the 7th day of 9 months. (Apollo took the winter off, because he was the sun god; Dionysius, god of the underworld [and wine], took his place during the dark months.) You would present your question or your dilemma to the priest who would relay it to a priestess who had, as part of the regimen, been fasting for three days — so she was pretty light-headed. She munched on a few stiff laurel leaves, then got a whiff of the vapors from the gap the goats had discovered. By this point she was, as one magazine article put it, ‘high as a kite.’ As the spokesperson for the Oracle, the spaced-out priestess delivered your answer. 


These answers were always tailored to the asker and open to interpretation. E.g.: Warrior asks Oracle, Will I survive the upcoming battle? Oracle replies:


‘You will go you will return not die in the war.’


Did the Oracle mean: ‘You will go. You will return. Not die in the war.’ 

Or, conversely: ‘You will go. You will return not. Die in the war.’ 


Remember the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves? Even in ancient Greece, punctuation was important to avoid ambiguity.


What were the job requirements for a priestess? At first the priestesses were chosen at birth and had to remain virgins for life. This worked until one eloped. After that, the priestess was the oldest woman in the village. 


So, what were those vapors that made the goats and the priestesses happy? Modern scientists figure that the gap in the rocks was where two faults met. They tested the soil and found methane and ethane. Guaranteed to produce a trance.


In the 4th century AD, Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. This put an end to pagans and temples and hallucinating priestesses. The Oracle was out of business. ‘Pagan’ being the Christian term: the ancient Greeks were very religious, they had more than enough gods and believed their lives were controlled by them.


Let’s take a walk up The Sacred Way... 


The Romans arrived (509 – 27 BC) and made changes to the complex. One way to tell the difference between earlier Greek creations and later Roman ones is by studying the bricks...

This structure was made by the Romans. How do we know? The Greeks built their structures with bricks dried in the sun. The Romans fired their bricks. This is one way archeologists differentiate the Greek from the Roman structures. But it’s also why more Roman structures survived the earthquakes and mudslides: Fired brick could tolerate being buried for centuries. Sun-dried bricks crumbled under the pressure.


‘The navel of the world.’ Ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was the center of the universe, and that this... was its navel! 


The Athenian Treasury, one of many that held priceless offerings from various city states, has been renovated. Originally, it was decorated with gems and a vibrant paint job. ​


Much of what historians have pieced together about who, what and when at Delphi is thanks to inscriptions on the walls and rocks…. dating from the 5th century B.C. I have read that their alphabet and language have changed so little, a modern Greek can read ancient Greek... no Rosetta Stone required.


This is a copy of an obelisk. The coils on the trunk represent two entwined snakes. 

I made it as far up as the amphitheatre. All theatre and sports (at the stadium at the top of the hill) were dedicated to religion, not to entertainment.  


Almost all the statuary, pediments and friezes that were found were moved to the modern Delphi Museum, next door. A few were restored to their full scope, like this Sphinx (570-560 BCE).​ The legs, feet and tops of the wings were recreated.

Did you know? If the head of a sculpted figure is looking down and to the left, it means the subject was dead.  

 This whimsical lion is chomping on a soldier’s leg. 

 This one is fiercer looking. 


The head of Medusa on your shield was meant to frighten your opponent. 


Outside the museum was the floor of a long-gone building, with beautiful mosaics... 



 Next up: A day at two of the monasteries at Metéora, further north. #















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