Delphi in detail

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Feature: The Delphic Oracle

The Delphic oracle ranked high among the sacred sites of Ancient Greece. Devotees flocked from far and wide to ask for the guidance of Apollo in making decisions. Wars were fought, colonies created, marriages sealed, leaders chosen and journeys begun on the strength of the oracle’s advice.

Surprisingly little is known about how the oracle actually functioned. Apollo’s instrument of communication, the Pythia (priestess), was usually an older woman, and sat on a tripod in his temple. Although there’s no evidence for the suggestion that she inhaled vapours from cracks or chasms in the rocks below the sanctuary, she certainly made her prophesies in a trance-like state.

The Pythia's pronouncements were notorious for their ambiguity, which left recipients to choose how they should be interpreted. Thus Croesus of Lydia was told that he would ‘destroy a great empire’ if he invaded Persia, but the empire that was destroyed was his own. Similarly, the Athenians were advised to trust their ‘wooden walls’ to defend against the Persians, but it took Themistocles to decide that the ‘walls’ in question were actually their ships.

One priestess suffered for her vagueness. When Alexander the Great dropped by, hoping to learn that his destiny was to conquer the world, the priestess refused direct comment, and asked that he return later. Enraged, he dragged her from the chamber by the hair, until she screamed, ‘Let go of me; you’re unbeatable!’. He quickly dropped her, saying, ‘I have my answer.'