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The Oracle at Delphi: An Ancient Fortune Teller

The ancient Greek world was a divided place. Although there were Greek people spread out all over what the area we now call Greece, as well as throughout parts of Asia (mainly Turkey) and Europe (mostly the Italian coast), there was little holding them together. Not even their common language was enough to unite them. 

Instead, the many Greek city-states chose to fight amongst themselves. Tensions were always high, particularly between the bigger cities such as Athens and Sparta. And war was frequent. 

Amidst all this division, there was one thing that the Greeks could all agree on — the wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi. 

With its roots deep in Greek mythology, the precinct of Delphi was a bastion of unity in a world where conflict was the norm. 

Not a City but a Precinct

Right off the bat, Delphi is special because it was not considered a city-state. Instead, it was a precinct. And unlike pretty much all the other land in ancient Greece, no single city state could claim it as theirs. 

Geographically, it is located in Phocis, a small region to the northwest of Attica (the region of Athens) and Boeotia (the region of Thebes.) Politically, it was once controlled by the Phocians, and the Thebans also made several attempts to make it part of their realm. But for most of its history, Delphi was independent.

In fact, to find a time when Delphi was directly under the control of one Greek city-state, we’d have to go way back to Mycenaean times (c. 1500 BC – c. 800 BC). 

Instead, throughout the Classical Age (c. 600- c. 200 BC), Delphi was controlled by a committee consisting of twelve different cities, including Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and many more. 

The Great Amphictyonic League

This group was known as the Great Amphictyonic League, and it was formed to ensure the protection of the temples of Apollo and Demeter, both of which were located in Delphi. 

Interestingly, the league’s membership terms also stipulated that no member would be completely wiped out in war, and that no water supply would be cut from any member city, even during wartime. 

This is perhaps one of the best examples of unity we have from ancient Greece. Despite all their differences, they agreed that Delphi was important. And while they admitted there would be war amongst them, they set rules to ensure their mutual survival. 

Hardly a cohesive nation focused on collective progress. But, hey, at least it’s something. 

Delphi: The Center of the World

So, what was so special about Delphi that caused the Greeks, who could hardly agree on anything, to put aside their differences in the name of its mutual defense?

Well, for one, Greek mythology indicates that Delphi is the center of the world. In other words, it’s kind of important to their understanding of life. 

According to the myth, Zeus, the father of all Greek gods, sent two eagles out, one flying west and the other flying east, to try and find the center of the world. They met in Delphi, and to mark the location, Zeus left a sacred stone known as the omphalos, which translates to “navel” in ancient Greek. 

Therefore, the ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was the world’s belly button. And not wanting anything to happen to it, they agreed to defend it together.

In addition to being the center of the world (as if this weren’t enough), Delphi took on special significance thanks to the god Apollo, the god of more or less everything in ancient Greece.

If there was one thing that the ancient Greeks could agree on, it was Delphi’s independence. Now, this agreement did little to prevent near constant warfare amongst them. But hey, it’s better than nothing. 

The Temple of Apollo

Myth also states that Delphi originally belonged to Gaea — Mother Earth — and that she guarded it with her serpent child, known as Python. 

Eventually, Apollo killed Python and took Delphi for his own. There, he founded an oracle. 

An oracle is something, or someone, who can speak to the gods and share their words with people, often in the form of prophecy. There were lots of oracles in ancient Greece, but Apollo’s at Delphi was one of the most significant and most well-known.

The first settlers in the area — likely from nearby Crete — believed they landed at Delphi thanks to Apollo’s guidance, and so they built a shrine to him at their new home. 

Over time, the Temple of Apollo grew to become one of the most important religious sites in all of ancient Greece. 

The Oracle of Delphi

Apollo was the god of, well, pretty much everything. Ancient Greek mythology is so rich and complex, that it tells many different stories about the significance of Apollo.

So, depending on which moment in time, and place, you look at, he could be the god of archery, music and dance, the sun and light, truth and prophecy, healing and disease, or pretty much anything else you can imagine. 

All of this meant that Apollo, as far as Greek gods go, was a pretty big deal. The people looked to him for guidance for many things. And luckily, there was a way for them to talk directly to him! 

Well, maybe not directly to him. But the ancient Greeks believed speaking with the Oracle at Delphi — also known as the pythia — formed a direct connection with Apollo, which was pretty exciting for people back then. 

Getting Your Fortune Told at the Oracle

Actually speaking with Apollo, however, wasn’t easy. First, you had to trek into the mountains to get to Delphi, no small task in a world where most people’s primary means of transportation was their own two feet. 

Then, once there, you would likely have to wait in like for the Oracle to see you. Depending on the time of year, this waiting could last for weeks. During religious festivals, and other significant dates, it was common to pilgrim to Delphi, meaning there were going to be crowds when you got there.

You could also have to wait if there were important people there. People (and cities) could skip the line by making a donation to the Oracle, kind of like buying priority boarding on an airplane.  But don’t worry, this money had no influence on what the Oracle would say…right?

Once you were in front of the Oracle, you would ask your question. Sample questions include: “Will this year be a good harvest?” “Will I have an heir?” “Will I find love?” You know, the easy stuff. 

Then, after you asked, the Oracle would breathe in this weird gas that seeped from a crack in the mountainous rocks, which they believed was the way to commune with Apollo. Then, the pythia would mutter a bunch of nonsensical words, and the priests present at the time would interpret them for you. 

After you’d received your prophecy, it was time to move on. Didn’t like what the Oracle had to say? Too bad. Maybe you shouldn’t have asked…

Deciding the Course of Greek History

Although our modern perspective might cause us to be a bit suspicious of this Oracle, the ancient Greeks took it very seriously. 

Before going to war, the Greeks would send an envoy to the Oracle to seek guidance, and the answers they got often determined if they wound up fighting. Part of the reason for this was to convince the regular people to join the war effort.

After all, they were the ones doing the actual fighting. So, if they believed they were acting in accordance with the gods, they fought harder and more willingly.

Overall, the Greeks listened very carefully to what the Oracle had to say. Except in one notable case. 

During the Greco-Persian Wars,  before leading his troops into battle with the Persians, Spartan king Leonidas sent an envoy to the Oracle. Hoping to secure its blessing, he was told that it was not the time to fight, and that he should wait. 

But waiting meant near-certain defeat. So, in a rare act of defiance, he ignored the Oracle and fought anyway. He and nearly all his men died in the battle, perhaps a sign that the Oracle was right?

To the ancient Greeks, this would have just reinforced the idea that one should not cross the Oracle. 

The Many Treasuries of Delphi

Given its influence on Greek politics, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there was a fair bit of corruption surrounding Delphi. This was fueled by the fact that Delphi was a precinct and not a city, which meant it had few resources for supplying and defending itself. 

To provide for Delphi, the members of the Great Amphictyonic League had to send goods and money. Over time, the more important Greek city-states, Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, etc., built treasuries right in Delphi. This allowed them to send a constant supply of stuff to the priests living there. 

In theory, these donations were made for the “good of Delphi.” But in reality, they helped buy favors with the priests. Giving more not only gave you increased access to the Oracle, but it could also help produce more favorable interpretations of Apollo’s words. 

So, if you were hoping to wage war on your neighbor and need the Oracle’s blessing to do so, it would have been a good idea to send some riches to the priests beforehand. Though this would only work if your enemy hadn’t already done so…

All this corruption kind of breaks down the myth that the Oracle was really a direct connection to Apollo. Instead, it was just a source of political power. But the Greek’s didn’t see it this way, and this serves as a reminder of how powerful and influential religion was in ancient Greece.

The Fall of Delphi

As Classical Greece declined, so too did Delphi’s significance. By the time the Romans conquered Greece, Delphi was all but abandoned, and it would remain that way for several centuries, until Greece became part of the Ottoman Empire (c. 1200 AD).

Yet while it stood, the city of Delphi, despite its small size and unique political status, exerted tremendous influence over ancient Greek affairs. 

Through this influence, Delphi reminds us of the importance of religion in Ancient Greece, and how so much of their history is defined by their understanding of, and relationship to, their most sacred gods.

Written by Matthew Jones