The Believing of Seeing, Part 1: The Oracle of Delphi

Priestess of Delphi (1891), as imagined by John Collier; the Pythia is inspired by pneuma rising from below as she sits on a tripod.

Priestess of Delphi (1891), as imagined by John Collier; the Pythia is inspired by pneuma rising from below as she sits on a tripod.

This time of year we love to explore all things unexplainable. But while Halloween has become a marketer’s dream, the spirits and forces that we mimic and parody in costumes and lawn ornaments are the stuff that defined ancient lives. Fear of the unknown, obeisance to light and dark forces and importunities to celestial powers were all seminal to the rise and fall of cultures around the world. For this reason, those individuals who had prescient powers were held in particularly high regard. The Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece is perhaps one of the most famous of these ancient seers.

The Oracle of Delphi

Located on Mount Parnassus, the Delphi site was sacred to the god Apollo. It was originally called Pytho after the snake Apollo killed there. It was considered the center of the world for the Greeks. According to Greek mythology Zeus sent two eagles in opposite directions, one to the east, the other the west. The point that they met after circling the globe was Delphi. The site had been considered sacred since 800 BCE, although the land had been occupied since Mycenaean times in the late Bronze Age (1500-1100 BCE).[1] The site also became famous for its Panhellenic Games held every four years, which in ancient times was second in scope only to the Greek Olympics.

A petitioner who consulted the oracle of Apollo, called the Pythia or priestess, would witness a highly involved ritual that would be held only at certain times and could last for a whole day.

“First the priestess would perform various actions of purification such as washing in the nearby Castalian Spring, burning laurel leaves, and drinking holy water. Next an animal – usually a goat – was sacrificed. The party seeking advice would then offer a pelanos – a sort of pie – before being allowed into the inner temple where the priestess resided and gave her pronouncements, possibly in a drug or natural gas-induced state of ecstasy.”[2]

The oracle was famed throughout Greece and beyond. People flocked to her to determine matters large and small. Her prognostications, however, were couched in enigmatic sayings that made interpretation difficult. One of the most famous misinterpretations captured in literature involved Oedipus, whom the oracle saw was to kill his father and marry his mother. With fate interceding in a most devious manner, Oedipus was spared death and exiled, but ended up fulfilling the prophecy, thus giving rise to Freudian interpretations and years of mother/son angst.

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora, Louvre (G 197)

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora, Louvre (G 197)

The oracle also reportedly was instrumental in confounding the ambitions of Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia. Facing a possible war with the Persians, Croesus asked the oracle’s advice, to which she responded that if Croesus went to war, a great empire would fall. Ambition and hubris surely overtook the king, because the Lydians were defeated and the empire destroyed.  Thus, the prophecy indeed came true, but not as Croesus understood it.

Due to these mishaps, machinations around the predictions were employed by the oracle and petitioners alike. Humans being crafty creatures, petitioners contrived ways to dispel the contradictions. “Arguments over the correct interpretation of an oracle were common, but the oracle was always happy to give another prophecy if more gold was provided.”[3]

Delphi also provided a site for other exchanges. Because there were no religious strictures with the worship of Greek gods, scholars would often come to Delphi, creating an intellectual gathering place for the leading minds of the day. Often, negotiations were held at the site between rival factions. Not surprisingly, Delphi also became a repository of priceless treasures sent by the Greek states to curry the favor of the oracle.[4] Thus, the Oracle of Delphi became deeply embedded in Greek society and in the cultural psyche.

There had been speculation, even during the oracles’ lives, that something was tripping the minds of these seers.

“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 spoke. According to legend, Plutarch, a priest at the Temple of Apollo, attributed Pythia’s prophetic powers to vapors. Other accounts suggested the vapors may have come from a chasm in the ground.”[5]

Fault lines at Delphi, courtesy of The Naked Scientist. Don't miss their article on the subject: "The Oracle at Delphi - Not Just Hot Air"

Fault lines at Delphi, courtesy of The Naked Scientist. Don’t miss their article on the subject:
The Oracle at Delphi – Not Just Hot Air

That notion of hallucinogenic fumes at Delphi has been bandied about for centuries. It took until very recently to retrieve some compelling data. A four-year study of the shrine, reported in the August 2001 issue of Geology, “…succeeded in locating young faults at the oracle site and has also identified the prophetic vapor as an emission of light hydrocarbon gases generated in the underlying strata of bituminous limestone.”[6]

Yet science cannot diminish the extraordinary importance that the Oracle of Delphi had in Greece and later Rome, which eventually appropriated the oracle along with numerous other elements of Greek civilization. The demise of the oracle came about as Christianity took root, forbidding pagan prophesying, and the Roman Empire disintegrated. Interestingly, in centuries typified by misogyny and male dominance, the Pythia had acquired enormous influence, a great feat for its time.

Today, despite the contradictory science as to existence of psychic powers, people continue to be fascinated by those who can see what others of us cannot. Is it a common gift that most of us overlook?

“Metaphysically speaking, the Third Eye is associated with the pineal gland at the geometric center of the brain… between and behind the brow… Eighteenth century French scientist and philosopher Rene Descartes speaks of the pineal gland as the chief interpreter of vision and mentions it as the seat of the human soul. The Third Eye, or pineal gland is said to have mystical powers, to connect us with our Source and to our supernatural powers.”[7]

Who is to say who among us has the “sight”? We are curious beings, continuously fascinated by the unknown, and especially by what lies ahead. What will tomorrow bring?  Will we find our soul mate, will our psychopathic boss meet an untimely end, will success finally embrace us? Can we tap that Third Eye to see how our lives will unfold? As with many a cheeky science fiction offering, will we regret knowing the future, or, as with Oedipus, wreak worse damage trying to outwit fate? Lofty questions, but no answers, at least for now.

Visit us tomorrow for The Believing of Seeing, Part 2: The World of a Modern Psychic.



[2] Ibid


[4] Ibid.




One response to “The Believing of Seeing, Part 1: The Oracle of Delphi

  1. Pingback: The Believing of Seeing, Part 2: The World of a Modern Day Psychic | AntiquityNOW

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