Delphi: Home of the Oracle (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

The ancient Greeks chose Delphi (from delphis, meaning womb) as their navel of the Earth and built the Sanctuary of Apollo here. Despite the continuous influx of tourists and blatant commercialism, we feel Delphi (dating back from the 8th-century BC) is still a very special place and well worth the long drive from Athens. Delphi is 110 miles northwest of Athens. Of all the archaeological sites in Greece, ancient Delphi is considered to be the one site with “spirit of place”. The Delphi location is quite stunning, built in the slopes of Mt. Parnassos, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and extending onto a valley of cypress and olive trees.

Temple of Apollo and Altar of Chiots in Delphi, Greece
Temple of Apollo and Altar of Chiots

Mythology & Origins

First settled during the Bronze Age’s Mycenaean times, Delphi took on its religious significance from around 800 BC. Originally the site was named Pytho, after the snake which Apollo was believed to have killed there. Worshipers gave votive offerings, which included small clay statues, bronze figurines, and richly decorated bronze tripods. Delphi was considered the center of the world because, according to Greek mythology, Zeus released two eagles, one to the east and another to the west, and Delphi was the point at which they met after encircling the world.

Approach to the Apollo Temple
Approach to the Apollo Temple

The Delphic Oracle

The Delphic Oracle was considered one of the most important religious (and political) sanctuaries in Greece. Worshippers flocked here from far and wide to consult the god Apollo on serious decisions. Apollo’s instrument of communication was the pythia, or priestess, usually an older woman, who sat on a tripod in the Temple of Apollo.

The priestess would chew on laurel leaves and inhale vapors from a chasm below (likely ethylene from a fault line) causing her to enter a trance during visitations and consultations. The priestess would then answer worshiper’s questions somewhat vaguely and in tongue, the priests of Apollo would then translate the message. The reputation of the oracle remained intact partly because of the ambiguity of her answers.  Wars were fought, marriages sealed, leaders chosen, and journeys begun on the strength of the oracle’s visions. And, after all, the prophecies were the will of a god, so the oracle’s reputation remained throughout antiquity.

Legend holds that one priestess suffered for her vagueness. When Alexander the Great visited, hoping to hear a prophecy that he would soon conquer the ancient world, the priestess refused direct comment, instead asking that he return later. Enraged, he dragged her by the hair out of the chamber until she screamed, “Let go of me; you’re unbeatable”. He quickly dropped her, saying, “I have my answer.”

Delphi Theatre
Theatre at the Sanctuary of Apollo

Panhellenic Games

Delphi was one of many religious sites that honored Greek gods with games. The Pythian Games of Delphi began in late 500 BC, at first being held every eight years before being changed to every four years. Initially, the competitions were only among solo singers vying to the be the best at singing a hymn to Apollo. Later on, the games were expanded to include more musical contests as well as athletic events. In terms of importance, these games were only second to the Olympics. The principal prize for victors in the Pythian Games was a crown of laurel or bay leaves.

Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, Delphi, Greece
Tholos, Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia

Architecture

Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we feel the official UNESCO description of the various monuments of Delphi is quite informative. Some of the most important monuments of the site include:

  • Temple of Apollo: Dated to the 4th-century BC, the temple was erected precisely on the remains of an earlier temple of the 6th-century BC. Inside was the adyton, the center of the Delphic oracle and seat of Pythia.
  • Treasury of the Athenians: This is a small building in Doric order, with two columns in antis and rich relief decoration, built by the Athenians at the end of the 6th-century BC to house their offerings to Apollo.
  • Altar of the Chains: The large altar of the sanctuary is in front of the temple of Apollo, erected by the people of Chios in the 5th-century BC, according to an inscription. The monument was made from black marble, apart from the base and cornice in white marble, resulting in an impressive color contrast.
  • Stoa of the Athenians: Built in the Ionic order, it has seven fluted-columns, each made from a single stone. According to an inscription cut on the stylobate, it was erected by the Athenians after 478 BC to house the trophies taken in their naval victories over the Persians.
  • Theatre: This was originally built in the 4th-century BC, but the visible ruins date from the Roman imperial period. The cavea had 35 rows of stone benches, with the foundations of the skene are preserved on the paved orchestra. The theatre was used mostly for the theatrical performances during the great festivals.
  • Stadium: The stadium was constructed in the 5th-century BC and remodeled in the 2nd-century AD at the expense of Herodes Atticus; at this time the stone seats and the arched monumental entrance were added. It was in this Stadium that the Panhellenic Pythian Games took place.
  • Castalian Spring: These are the preserved remains of two monumental fountains that received the water from the spring in the ravine of the Phaedriades and dates to the archaic period and the Roman era. The later one is cut in the rock and has niches cut high in the cliff, which probably held the offerings to the Nymph Castalia.
  • Tholos: A circular building in Doric order, built around 380 BC: its function is unknown but it must have been an important one, judging from the fine workmanship, and the high-standard relief decoration.
  • Polygonal Wall: Built after the destruction of the old temple of Apollo in 548 BC, the wall was bulit to support the terrace on which the new temple was to be erected. The masonry is polygonal and the curved joints of the stones fit perfectly in place. Many inscriptions, mostly manumissions, are carved on the stones of the wall.
Delphi: Temple of Apollo
Columns in the Sanctuary of Apollo

Demise

A team of French archeologists began the first modern excavations of the site in 1880. They found many artifacts which proved the cultural and artistic wealth that Delphi had once enjoyed. Among them were metope sculptures from the treasury of the Athenians (circa 490 BC) and the Siphnians (circa 525 BC) depicting scenes from Greek mythology, a bronze charioteer in the severe style (480 – 460 BC), the marble Sphinx of the Naxians (circa 560 BC), the twin marble archaic statues – the kouroi of Argos (circa 580 BC) and the richly decorated omphalos stone (circa 330 BC).

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