Delphic oracle

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Oracle of Apollo. Its origins are dated to the very end of the 9th cent. bc, and eventually it developed into the most important Greek oracle. It was consulted by poleis (see polis) as well as individuals, and played a guiding role in the formation of the Greek poleis and in colonization; it gave guidance on pollution, ‘release from evils’, and, above all, cult.

The earliest temple belongs to the second half of the 7th cent. The temple whose remains are visible was built in the 4th cent. The oracular consultation took place in the innermost sanctuary (adytum), in which stood the omphalos marking the centre of the world as determined by Zeus, who released two eagles, one from the east and one from the west, which met at Delphi. Also in the adytum grew a laurel‐tree (daphnē; see trees, sacred). The enquirer had to pay a consultation tax. At the altar outside the temple was offered the preliminary sacrifice before the consultation, which on regular consultation days was offered by the Delphic polis on behalf of all enquirers. On other days it was offered by the enquirer. If the preliminary ritual was successful, i.e. if the animal had reacted as it should when sprinkled with water, it was sacrificed, and the enquirer entered the temple, where he offered a second sacrifice, depositing either a whole victim or parts of one on an offering‐table, at the entrance of the adytum. He then probably went with the prophētai (interpreters) and other cult personnel to a space from which he could not see the Pythia (see below) in the adytum. The Pythia, who had prepared herself by purification at the Castalian spring, burnt laurel leaves and barley meal on the altar called hestia inside the temple; crowned with laurel, she sat on the tripod, became possessed (see possession, religious) by the god, and, shaking a laurel sprig, prophesied under divine inspiration—or in a self‐induced trance. Her pronouncements were then somehow shaped by the prophetai. Exactly what form the Pythia's pronouncements took and what the prophetai did are matters of controversy. Perhaps she saw things which she put into words as best she could, and the prophetai interpreted them, shaping them into coherent, if ambiguous, responses; this was not an attempt to hedge their bets, but a result of the ambiguity inherent in the god's signs and the Greek perception that ambiguity is the idiom of prophecy, that there are limits to man's access to knowledge about the future: the god speaks ambiguously, and human fallibility intervenes and may misinterpret the messages.

The most important of the oracle's religious personnel (consisting of Delphians) were: the Pythia, an ordinary woman who served for life and remained chaste (see chastity) throughout her service; the prophetai; the hosioi, who participated in the ritual of the consultation and shared tasks with the prophetai, and the priests of Apollo. The Pythia is not mentioned in the oldest ‘document’ informing us about the Delphic cult and oracle, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, where the god gives oracular responses ‘from the laurel‐tree’, an expression that corresponds closely to that (‘from the oak‐tree’) used in the Odyssey for the prophecies at Dodona, where the oak‐tree spoke the will of Zeus, which was interpreted by priests. A similar practice involving the laurel may have been practised at Delphi at an early period. Control of the oracle was in the hands of the Delphic Amphictiony, run by the amphictionic council, whose duties included the conduct of the panhellenic Pythian Games, the care of the finances of the sanctuary, and the upkeep of the temple. The amphictiony, we are told, fought a war against Crisa and defeated it; this is the First Sacred War, the historicity of which has been doubted, but the traditional date for its end (c.590 bc) coincides with the beginning of a serious upgrading of the sanctuary, not the least of its manifestations being the building of several treasuries. The first Pythian Games were held to celebrate the amphictiony's victory. Other Sacred Wars followed, of which the fourth ended in 338 with the victory of Philip II of Macedon at Chaeronea. The oracle's influence had not diminished as a result of its suspect position in the Persian Wars. Its influence continued, only its ‘political’ role inevitably diminished in the radically changed circumstances of the Hellenistic and Graeco‐Roman world.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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