Deciphering Delphi – home of the Oracle

Delphi amphitheatre with remains of Temple of Apollo beyond (Image credit: ASLAN Hub)

Delphi is an amazing place. The sacred precinct of ancient Greece has a spectacular location, captivating stories of gods and priestesses, and some intriguing geodetic alignments. Here we look at why Delphi was a significant place, and why in many ways it still is.

Delphi in a nutshell

Some of the highlights about the ancient site of Delphi…

  • a place situated within a magnificent natural setting, on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus, a mountain sacred to ‘party-god’ Dionysus and home of the Muses;
  • a sanctuary associated with Apollo, its patron deity and one of the twelve Olympian gods, who – according to legend – slayed a serpent there;
  • the home of the Oracle of Delphi, also called the Pythia – a priestess who inhaled hallucinogenic vapors to channel prophecies from Apollo;
  • a site featuring ancient ‘Cyclopean’ masonry, associated with the Pelasgians, or Proselenes, said to have lived before the moon existed;
  • a sacred centre or ‘navel of the world’, where the Omphalos, a stone artifact allowing direct communication with the gods, was located;
  • a site aligned with others in Greece and across Europe on a mysterious axis associated with Apollo and the archangel Michael.

The sacred Mount Parnassus

Mt. Parnassus is a ‘mountain range in central Greece.

The mountain – which lies north of the Gulf of Corinth – holds a similar position in Greek legends as Mt Ararat holds in the Old Testament. It was said to be the location where Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha landed in an ark-like boat, after a great flood, and started to repopulate the earth.

Mt. Parnassus was also a legendary home of the Muses (one of a few mountains sharing this accolade). The Muses were beautiful goddesses who delighted the gods with their songs, dances and poems, and provided artistic inspiration to mere morals. On a similar theme, the mountain was also home to the Corycian Cave, named after mythical nature spirits that were depicted as beautiful maidens, and were said to inhabit the cave.

Above: drawing by Alfred John Church showing the village of Kastri, built atop the ruins of Delphi, and the Vulva of the Earth, Ge or Gaia, with the two Plaedriades above. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

And of greatest relevance to the current article, the southern slopes of Mt. Parnassus provided the site – an amazing natural theatre – for Delphi. The sacred precinct was situated between two towering rocks, known as the Phaedriades or ‘the shining ones’, because they reflected a dazzling glare. In between the Phaedriades was the Castalian Spring, where visitors to Delphi stopped to quench their thirst and where the oracle of Delphi did her work.

And of course Mt. Parnassus has strong associations with Apollo…

Apollo and the founding of Delphi

Apollo was the national divinity of the Greeks, and one of the twelve Olympian gods. As with other gods, Apollo was ascribed many ‘specialisms’, which in his case included being god of the Sun and god of wisdom. Apollo was associated with prophecy, healing, music, dance and archery. Apollo was also a law-giver, a civiliser, teacher and organise, and a road builder, and a patron of herdsmen and shepherds. He was clearly a rather busy god!

Of relevance here, Apollo was the patron deity of Delphi (Apollo Pythios). He was known as an oracular god or prophetic deity, the ‘averter of evil’. However, Apollo didn’t have the place all to himself, he shared it with his younger brother Dionysus. Also known as the ‘party-god’, Dionysus was the god of wine, festivity and fertility. During the winter months, when Apollo went and lived with the Hyperboreans, Dionysus was in charge, and his followers, known as the maenades (“the raving ones”), worked themselves into a frenzy through wine and dance.

But back to Apollo and the founding of Delphi. The site was originally a sacred place dedicated to Gaia, the Earth Mother, whose cult was centred on the Corycion Cave, high on Mount Parnassus. The site of the Castalian Spring was said to be guarded by Gaia’s serpent child, Python. Apollo arrived on the scene from Mount Olympus and proceeded to slay the fleeing Python. Apollo claimed the site as his own, whilst the slain reptile fell into a fissure, from whence fumes arose from its decomposing body; or so the story goes.

Above: Apollo killing the Python, by Hendrik Goltzius. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Next, Apollo purified himself and returned with a group of Cretan sailors, with the god himself disguised as a dolphin! Apollo revealed his godly self to the sailors, who then served as his priests. Apollo persuaded Pan (the goat-god) to reveal to him the art of prophecy, and he erected an oracular temple, aligned to the midsummer sunrise. All this was part of the story of how Delphi became established as a sanctuary of Apollo and home of the oracle.

But why was it called Delphi? Well, the site was once called Pytho, from the Greek word ‘to rot’ (pythein), linked to fumes rising from the fissure. The site was renamed Delphi (or Delphoi), after the dolphin (delphi) that Apollo came disguised as. However, there were apparently older tales that mentioned two dragons or reptiles at the site, rather than one. The female dragon was called Delphyne, linked to the Greek word for ‘womb’ (delphys).

The Oracle of Delphi

The ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, writing the first century AD, explained how the special qualities of the Delphi site were discovered:

They say that the manner of its discovery was the following. There is a chasm at this place where now is situated what is known as the “forbidden” sanctuary, and as goats had been wont to feed about this because Delphi had not as yet been settled, invariably any goat that approached the chasm and peered into it would leap about in an extraordinary fashion and utter a sound quite different from what it was formerly wont to emit.

The herdsman in charge of the goats marvelled at the strange phenomenon and having approached the chasm and peeped down it to discover what it was, had the same experience as the goats, for the goats began to act like beings possessed and the goatherd also began to foretell future events. After this as the report was bruited among the people of the vicinity concerning the experience of those who approached the chasm, an increasing number of persons visited the place and, as they all tested it because of its miraculous character, whosoever approached the spot became inspired. For these reasons the oracle came to be regarded as a marvel and to be considered the prophecy-giving shrine of Earth.

For some time all who wished to obtain a prophecy approached the chasm and made their prophetic replies to one another; but later, since many were leaping down into the chasm under the influence of their frenzy and all disappeared, it seemed best to the dwellers in that region, in order to eliminate the risk, to station one woman there as a single prophetess for all and to have the oracles told through her. And for her a contrivance [a tripod] was devised which she could safely mount, then become inspired and give prophecies to those who so desired.

Bibliotheca historia, XVI: 26 (2-5)

According to Greek mythology, Gaia appointed the nymph Daphnis as her prophetess – the first Oracle of Delphi. There is also a tradition of the Sibyl, a prophetess who sat on the Rock of the Sybil to make her pronouncements. From about 1200 BC, a holy priestess called the Pythia or Pythona took the key role at Delphi, and ‘channelled’ the god Apollo. As the oracle’s popularity grew, two or three priestesses shared the job in rotation.

Above: The Rock of the Sibyl (left) and a depiction of the Pythia (right) called Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier, showing the Pythia sitting on a tripod with vapor rising from a crack in the earth beneath her (Image credits: ASLAN Hub and Wikimedia Commons)

In the 7th and 8th centuries BC, the cult of Apollo arrived and a temple to Apollo was built next to the Rock of the Sybil. The Pythia/s delivered their prophetic words in the adyton, a separate, restricted room at the rear of the temple. As Delphi’s popularity grew, other buildings and infrastructure were built, and a Sacred Way led up to an amphitheatre and an athletic stadium beyond. Delphi reached the height of its fame between the 6th and 4th centuries BC.

Pilgrims – varying from rulers to common folk – flocked to Delphi to hear their prophecies and help them with their ailments. Most joined the long queues, although the wealthy could pay to get to the front. The ‘cryptic ramblings’ of the priestesses were translated by the Apollo priests, and they were apparently quite accurate as prophecies of the future, or as diagnoses.

“The Oracle neither conceals or reveals, but indicates”

Heraclitus (Greek philosopher)

Plutarch, who had worked as a priest at Delphi, attributed the oracular effects to the sweet-smelling vapors (or pneuma) escaping from the chasm in the rock. The release of vapors reduced in cold weather, so the oracle operated for 9 months of the year. In addition, there is evidence of the priestesses using plant leaves to induce similar effects – or perhaps to enhance the vapors’ effects. They either chewed or inhaled the burnt aromas of the leaves of Oleander (laurel). However, after an earthquake, the fissure in the ground apparently closed up, the vapors subsided, and Delphi’s oracular function came to an end.

But what were the vapors emanating from the ground? The main contender is ethylene, or a similar hydrocarbon. Ethylene is a colourless flammable gas, which has a faint sweet and musky smell, which can cause hallucinations. However, some researchers have questioned whether it could have been in sufficiently high concentration in nature to induce odour and neurotoxic effects. An alternative theory is that the gas was a combination of methane and carbon dioxide, although this would not explain the sweet smelling fumes that have been described.

Whatever the gas, it gave added meaning to the term ‘high priestess’.

Cyclopean walls and the Pelasgians

Archaeological evidence indicates that from around 1500 to 1100 BC there was a Mycenaean village and cemetery at the sanctuary site. Then, the earth goddess, rather than Apollo, was the primary focus on oracular activity at the site. At some point, there was also a megalithic construction phase at Delphi, although it is unclear when this took place.

The megalithic structure in question is an ancient polygonal wall, comprising huge blocks of stone, intricately arranged together. It is some 80 metres long, with “innumerable inscriptions” carved into it. Such walls are not unique to Greece, and similar walls occur in many locations in the world, including Italy, Turkey, Egypt, in South America, and on Easter Island.

Above: Polygonal wall at Delphi (Image credit: ASLAN Hub)

They are usually referred to as Cyclopean walls. The reason for this is that the Ancient Greeks believed that only the mythical Cyclopes – gigantic one-eyed creatures – would have been strong enough to move and manipulate stones of this size.

The walls are associated with the Pelasgians. The Pelasgians were said to have been the indigenous inhabitants of the Aegean Sea region, before the Greeks emerged (or arrived on the scene). Little is known about the Pelasgians, although if they pre-dated the Mycenaeans, their origins would have been well back into the Neolithic.

Interestingly, ancient writers such as Aristotle, and Apollonios of Rhodes, state that the Pelasgians lived in the Greek region of Arcadia at a time when the moon did not exist. These inhabitants of Arcadia were also known as the Proselenes (meaning ‘those that were before moon’ in Greek). Whoever the Pelasgians were, and whenever the polygonal walling at Delphi was built, they are clearly of some considerable antiquity.

Navel of the world

The Ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the centre, or navel, of the world.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, sought to locate the centre of the Earth. Zeus released two eagles from eastern and western ends of the Earth, and they crossed paths above the area of Delphi, and alighted on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.  This was where Zeus placed the omphalos, a sacred stone artefact.

(This foundation myth is apparently almost identical to that of Dodona, the oldest Ancient Greek oracular site, which preceded Delphi as the national Oracle).

The omphalos stone is shaped like an egg, and has a carving of a knotted net covering its surface, and a hollow centre. Originally, it was said to be the stone that the mother goddess Rhea wrapped in swaddling clothes, pretending it was her son Zeus, in order to deceive Cronus (her consort). Cronus had a habit of swallowing his children so as to prevent them from usurping his power.

Omphalos stones were believed to allow direct communication with the gods, and at Delphi, the omphalos was said to have been set in the ground where Apollo had killed the serpent. It has been suggested that the intoxicating vapours inhaled by the Oracular priestess passed through – and were concentrated by – the omphalos stone. In other accounts, the priestess merely sat near to the omphalos in the Temple of Apollo, as she went about her business.

The original omphalos stone was – according to legend – a meteorite that fell from the sky in deepest antiquity. Another legend indicates that it was the first physical object to emerge on dry land after the waters of the Deluge had settled.

Above: An omphalos beside the Sacred Way at Delphi (left) and the omphalos at Delphi museum (right). Image credits: George E. Koronaios, Wikimedia Commons and ASLAN Hub.

Intriguingly, Delphi was not only the centre of the Ancient Greek world, it was at the heart of a vast zodiacal wheel. And moreover, it sits on an alignment of ancient and sacred sites that spans a large part of the European continent, and beyond. The re-discovery of the zodiacal wheel started when Jean Richer, a French scholar living in Greece, found that three of the most famous oracular sites were in direct alignment: Delos, the legendary birthplace of Apollo, Delphi, the sun-god’s main sanctuary, and Athens, which was a centre for the workshop of the goddess Athena.

Richer’s brother extended his research beyond the Greek world, and was able to project the alignment across western Europe. Whereas in the Greek world the alignment has associations with Apollo, in western Europe, the alignment passes through some of the most significant centres of Christianity, dedicated to the archangel Michael.

Hence this 2500-mile alignment, which extends across the Mediterranean to Israel, is often referred to as the Apollo-St Michael alignment. Just to take one stretch of the alignment across the English Channel (or La Manche), it joins Mont St Michael off the French coast with St Michael’s Mount off the English coast. Before leaving Ireland at Skellig Michael.

The alignment was covered by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller in their book, The Dance of the Dragon. They, along with Vivienne Shanley and Ba Russell, travelled across Europe, dowsing for earth energies along the alignment. They picked up two energy currents weaving along the alignment, a male current that they called Apollo, and a female current that they called Athena. At intervals these currents crossed at node points along the alignment.

Broadhurst and Miller noted that the dragon or serpent was a universal symbol of the life force within the Earth, revered by nature-worshipping religions. At Delphi, itself associated with a dragon or serpent, they describe how the earth energies “performed astonishing convolutions”, entering the Temple of Apollo, kinking out the Rock of the Sibyl, and re-entering the Temple, before carrying on their way.  Broadhurst and Miller suggested these earth energies must have been the true reason for Delphi’s sanctity, and the source of its oracular power.

For more on the Apollo St Michael alignment, check out The Dance of the Dragon (book). Or Penwith Press, which sells a detailed set of maps. Also see Joanna Pyrgies’ research.

Above: The Apollo St Michael axis, including Delphi in Greece

Final thoughts

There is (or was) a lot going on at Delphi. It raises lots of questions. For example, what came first out of the intoxicating fumes and the geodetic alignments (and possible earth energies)? Who built the Cyclopean walls and when? Are the associations with Gaia and Apollo much more recent? And who exactly were Apollo and the Olympian gods? Rather than ‘decipher’ Delphi, we’ve only really scratched surface. This suggests that there is a lot more still to understand about Delphi, and the ancient world in general.

Main references

Dance of the Dragon (book)

UNESCO Archaeological Site of Delphi

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