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News Category: Main -> The Oracle of Delphi



The Oracle of Delphi

The Oracle of Delphi in Greece was the forecasting analyst of ancient times: People came from all over Europe to call on the Pythia (priestess) at Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. Her answers could determine when farmers planted their fields or when an empire declared war.

The Pythia, a role filled by different women from about 1400 B.C. to A.D. 381, was the medium through which the god Apollo was said to speak.

The centerpiece of Delphi was the temple of Apollo, built with donations from every Greek city-state and from abroad. The base of the temple still stands, with half a dozen of the original columns. On the outside of the base are over 700 inscriptions, most announcing the emancipation of slaves, which was considered a special act of piety to be performed at Delphi. At the far end of the temple is the altar, originally decorated with memorials, ex-votos, statues, and offerings.


The first oracle at Delphi was commonly known as Sibyl, though her name was Herophile. She sang her predictions, which she received from Gaia. Later, "Sibyl" became a title given to whichever priestess manned the oracle at the time. The Sibyl sat on the Sibylline Rock, breathing in vapors from the ground1 and gaining her often puzzling predictions from that. Pausanias claimed that the Sibyl was "born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph". Others said she was sister or daughter to Apollo. Still others claimed the Sibyl received her powers from Gaia originally, who passed the oracle to Themis, who passed it to Phoebe.

    The Delphic Sibyl was the priestess presiding over the Apollonian Oracle at Delphi, a Greek colony, located in a plateau on the side of Mount Parnassus. She lived on Mount Parnassus and was believed by many to be a prophet. The word sibyl comes (via Latin) from the ancient Greek word (sibulla), meaning "prophetess".

    There were many Sibyls in the ancient world, but the Delphic Sibyl was among the most renowned because of the famous receivers of her advice, who were said to be Aegeus, Cadmus, Herakles, Oedipus, Orestes, Perseus and Xuthus.

    Two places claimed to be the birthplace of this Sibyl, who is traditionally known as the third Sibyl, namely Marpessus in the Troad and Erythrse. There are various names for the Sibyl: Pythia, Herophile and Delphica.Pausanias claimed that the Sybil was "born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph". Others said she was sister or daughter to Apollo. Still others claimed the Sybil received her powers from Gaia originally, who passed the oracle to Thetis, who passed it to Phoebe.

    According to legend, the Sibyl was visited by Herakles after he slew his wife and children in a fit induced by Hera. The Oracle told him as penance he was required to carry out twelve tasks set by his arch-enemy, Eurystheus, who had become King in his stead.

    According to legend, the Sibyl came from the Troad to Delphi before the Trojan War, "in wrath with her brother Apollo", lingered for a time at Samos, visited Claros and Delos, and died in the Troad, after surviving nine generations of men. After her death, it was said that she became a wandering voice that still brought to the ears of men tidings of the future wrapped in dark enigmas.

    Science and the Sibyl

    There have been occasional attempts to find a scientific explanation for the Sibyl's behaviour. Most commonly, these refer to Plutarch's observation that the Pythia's oracular powers appeared to be linked to vapors from the Castalian Spring that surrounded her, together with the observation that sessions of prophesy would either take place in, or be preceded by a visit to, an enclosed chamber at the base of the temple. It has been suggested that these vapors may have been hallucinogenic gases. In 2001 evidence of the presence of ethylene, a potential hallucinogen, was found in the temple's local geology and nearby springs. Inhalation of ethylene in an enclosed space might well have exposed the Sibyl to sufficiently high concentrations of the narcotic gas to induce a euphoric or trance-like state. [See notes below]

This oracle exerted considerable influence across the country, and was consulted before all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, and so forth. She also was respected by the semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt. Croesus of Lydia consulted Delphi before attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus received the answer "if you do, you will destroy a great empire." Croesus found the response favorable and attacked, and was utterly overthrown (resulting, of course, in the destruction of his own empire).

The oracle is also said to have proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in Greece, to which Socrates said that if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. This claim is related to one of the most famous mottos of Delphi, which Socrates said he learned there, Gnothi Seauton: "know thyself".

Another famous motto of Delphi is Meden Agan: "nothing in excess".

In the 3rd century A.D., the oracle (perhaps bribed) declared that the god would no longer speak there.The temple to Apollo at Delphi was built by Trophonius and Agamedes.

Fault Lines

After investigating the site, archeologists were convinced that these vapours are only a myth, as no evidence for them could be found, and - so the then standard opinion in geology - gaseous emissions from rock only occur in conjunction with volcanic activity. However, recent geological research indicates that the site of the oracle shows young geological faults, and it seems plausible that these emitted in ancient times light hydrocarbon gases from bituminous limestone which do have an intoxicating effect. (de Boer et al., Geology 29 (2001) pp. 707; see e.g. here for a popular science coverage) Other archaeologists believe that the oracle also inhaled fumes of burning bay leaves.

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