What actually happened during the hundreds of years between 720 B.C.E. and 395 A.D. when ancient Greeks consulted the Oracle of Delphi? Who was this magical woman named Pythia whose advice changed history?
In our teacher group walking tour of Delphi, we learned shocking facts to explain the history of the Oracle.
1. Ethylene gas in the nose. The Oracle of Delphi was actually several different women from the village below. They were normal gals who took turns climbing the mountain to don the Oracle outfit and breathe some holy smoke from a tripod vase before answering questions of visitors.
But here’s the thing: modern Geologists recently realized that there are fissures in the Earth at Delphi that emit Ethylene gas, so when the ladies inhaled the output, they became drugged!!! Hence their speaking in tongues when asked a question. Drugged Oracles! (Don’t believe me? Read this New York Times article!).
2. Spies of Delphi. When the Oracle replied to questions, she did so in ecstatic, magical gibberish, and thus had to be “translated” by a male priest.
Now, our guide explained that these priests were actually like a giant network of spies, in that they had eyes and ears all around the land; they knew what was going on in the world, and hence could give solid advice. While the drugged Oracle screeched on, the priest could write whatever he wanted. Generally, what they wanted was to give wise advice that would maintain the peace (and thus keep Delphi safe), so the information from espionage was key in creating this.
3. Subterfuge by animals. Sometimes an important person would come to Delphi to ask a question, but the spies needed more time to gather information for a sufficient answer, so they would use a trick to buy more time.
Here’s how: People coming to ask the Oracle questions were expected to bring animals to sacrifice. A priest would sprinkle water on the animal, and if it shook its woolly head upon receiving the droplets, the visitor could proceed to the Oracle. If, however, the animal didn’t react, the pilgrim had to turn around and come back to try again later. How did the priests buy time for certain people, while allowing others to pass? They dripped cold water when they wanted the animal to react, and warm water when they didn’t!
4. Ambiguity in answers. Students of Greek myth and legend know that the advice of the Oracle was usually cryptic. Any Horoscope writer knows this is smart, because if things go wrong for you from a prediction, it’s your fault for misinterpreting the advice, not the Oracle’s!
Here’s a legendary example from 560 B.C.E.: “If you cross the river, a great empire will fall,” the Oracle told Croesus, King of Lydia. Being hubristic, the king assumed the doomed empire would be the Persians’, and crossed the water. He lost, and it was his own empire that fell! But you can’t blame the Oracle for a misinterpreted clue.
5. Overall great advice. Whatever the Oracle said, visitors to Delphi would still leave with extra wisdom if they read the writing on the walls. According to our guide, on the walls of Delphi’s structures were etched the following life lessons:
• Know thyself
• Everything in moderation
• Harmony in difference
Visitors who took the time to mull over these lessons would think twice about doing something rash like going to war.
6. Slaves to freedom. In ancient Greece, nearly anyone could become a slave with a little bad luck. According to our guide, even Plato was briefly enslaved after a shipwreck, and his kids had to buy back his freedom. What does this have to do with Delphi? On the stone walls of the Temple of Apollo on Delphi’s mountain, freed slaves of antiquity carved their names. “That way,” said our guide, “it was literally written in stone that they were freed, and no one could say they weren’t!” This shows a powerful element of ancient Greek democracy: because everyone was expected to adhere to written laws, it obligated the government to provide education and literacy for its citizens!
7. Delphi as the navel. The legend is that Zeus sent two birds around the world in opposite directions, and the place where they met was the center of everything: Delphi… hence, it is known as the “belly-button of the world.” Small domed rock statues around the mountain symbolize this.
8. Buried treasure. After the Oracle stopped being used, a town was built on top of the site in Delphi, and it wasn’t until 1893 that archaeologists even realized the massive piece of history under the houses! After an earthquake forced the townspeople to move, time was ripe for excavation.
How lucky we are that this remarkable site was found, and that its secrets are slowly being revealed! Can you IMAGINE being that first person who dug down and found the first relic?!
A huge shout-out to Greece for doing such a lovely and respectful job of preserving the magic of the ancient site of Delphi. Well done!