The Athenian Treasury. Doesn’t it resemble a modern day bank? The Stoa of the Athenians on the Right.
Delphi is an archaeological site I’ve read about since high school Latin class. It’s located near the same-named modern town in Greece on Mount Parnassus. For centuries, it was the spiritual and religious center of the ancient Greek world. In myths dating to the classical period of Ancient Greece (510-323 BC), the site of Delphi was believed to be determined by Zeus when he sought to find the center of his “Grandmother Earth,” the center of the world. Basically, he was in search of Gaia’s belly-button. He found it here, in Delphi.
There are traces of human activity that date to the 14th B.C.E. However, it is the Oracle of Apollo that has fueled the imagination of countless generations, including me. The cult of Apollo became established at Delphi around the 10th century B.C.E. According to myth, Apollo first killed the Python, the snake that guarded the oracle of Gaia (mother earth). The giant snake (or dragon) stood guard while the “Sibyl” gave out her prophecies, which came as she inhaled the trance inducing vapors from an open chasm. Apollo made the mountainside his home for 9 months of the year, wintering in Hibernia (Ireland).
While visiting Athens, I took a day trip to Delphi.
Though it was a long drive from Athens, the bus left early. We arrived to a day where the valleys were filled with morning fog.
This complex was built into the side of a mountain, so there are terraces with steps between the levels. As a pilgrim entered, he would first wash himself before ascending this first flight and continuing along the sacred way. “The petitioners, too, undertook a series of rituals, including purification in the Castalia Spring. They then took part in a solemn procession up the Sacred Way to the temple. There they drew drew lots to determine the order in which they presented their questions. Highly esteemed individuals or cities (because of their rich donations in the past) were able to jump the queue. Each of them had to pay a fee to the temple and sacrifice an animal, in most cases a goat (in honor of the site’s discoverer).” ~ Adventures in Archaeology.
This was a stoa, a covered, columned walkway and an early version of the strip mall. Here, pilgrims could buy trinkets to take home or to dedicate to the oracle. Oddly, Delphi was only open on the 7th day of each month for 9 months of the year. Apollo “shared” the site with his younger brother, Dionysos, the god of wine. Every year at the onset of winter, Apollo abandoned Delphi to spend three months in the land of the Hyperboreans far to the north (Ireland. According to the Romans it was a country of eternal youth and beauty, where old age and disease were completely unknown.). In winter, the sanctuary was given over to the followers of the god of wine and revelry.
Our guide explains the origins of the site. The sanctuary of Apollo was by far the most famous oracle in the world for centuries. She was consulted by kings and commoners alike, often consulted by the kings as generals of competing armies simultaneously. According to ancient accounts, Apollo’s temple was situated over a crack in the earth from which intoxicating fumes (supposedly from the rotting corpse of Python) issued. The priestess breathed the fumes in order to go into a trance and communicate prophetic utterances. The male priests would then interpret these for the pilgrim.
These are serious mountains, very steep and rocky. The views are amazing, if your knees are good enough for the climb.
According to Delphi & The Oracle of Apollo: “Nowhere in the ancient literature is there a clear description of the selection process [for the priestess]. Modern scholars have speculated that there may have been a sort of guild of women who looked after the sacred flame. Presumably they were of unblemished character and no longer had an active sex life—the gods (especially Apollo) were touchy about competition. The position commanded great respect—far more than was granted ordinary women. They were provided with a salary and housed at state expense. They were exempt from taxation, could own property and attend public events. At the height of its fame the sanctuary employed as many as three Pythiai, working in shifts, so great were the number of petitioners.” “There would undoubtedly have been a period of fasting in the days leading up to the main event. Then the Oracle would bathe in the Castalia Spring and undergo a ritual purification involving barley smoke. Before entering the temple she drank from the sacred Adyton of the Temple of Apollo waters of the Kassotis spring.”
And here is the belly-button! This is an omphalos a religious stone. In Greek, the word omphalos means “navel.” According to Greek lore, Zeus sent two eagles across the world to meet at its center. They met here at Delphi, the “navel” of the world. Omphalos stones marking the center were “discovered” in several places about the Mediterranean Sea. While, the most famous is at Delphi, even this location has more than one.
From Delphi & The Oracle of Apollo: “Many modern scholars take the view that the actual utterances were mainly unintelligible gibberish and that it was the priests who interpreted her responses and cast them into verse. Since the site received visitors from all over the world, it was argued, they were in a position to gather intelligence and make informed decisions. However, the ancient writers are unanimous in insisting that it was the oracle herself who made the pronouncements. Many of the questions asked of the Pythia have survived inscribed on lead tablets but none of the answers were recorded by the priests. The most famous answer that we know was recorded again by Herodotus when Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, asked the Pythia whether he should cross the Halys River and attack the Persian king, Cyrus the Great. The Pythia’s typically enigmatic reply was if Croesus should cross the Halys River, a great empire would fall. Heartened by this answer he did attack Persia but it was he, Croesus, who was defeated. The one boon that Croesus requested of Cyrus upon his capture was to have his manacles sent to Delphi as a rebuke to the oracle that had failed him after he had bestowed so many luxurious gifts on the sanctuary. Unabashed, the Pythia retorted that Croesus had failed to follow up on the first response and ask which empire she meant.”
Difficult to see, but on this stone are carved the names of freed slaves.
There was no signage on this, so possibly the tour guide and I were the only ones from the group who recognized this bronze reproduction. This is the original location of the Serpent Column, now located in Istanbul. The Serpentine Column is also called the Delphi Tripod or Plataean Tripod. It was moved from Delphi to the spina (center) of the Hippodrome of Constantinople (the horse racing track). The former hippodrome is now a park, located along the length of The Blue Mosque (the site of the former Palace). All the treasures displayed in the park from antiquity still stand. The Serpent Column is part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod, and was relocated to (then) Constantinople by Constantine I the Great in 324. The column was built to commemorate the Greeks who fought and defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). The serpent heads of the 8-metre (26 ft) high column may have remained intact until the end of the 17th century, well after the Ottoman conquest in 1452, when the city became Istanbul. Only one of the three heads remains. It is on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
This is the ramp entrance to the sanctuary of Apollo and the place of the priest (male) and the oracle (female). Pilgrims were not allowed into Apollo’s Temple and they still aren’t.
The sanctuary of Apollo. It was here that Apollo spoke, through the oracle. The sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia. According to Wikipedia: “She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth (the “chasm”). When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. It has been speculated that a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, came out of this opening, though this theory remains debatable.”
The ruins below of the Temple of Delphi are a Doric building, dating from the 4th century BC. It was erected on the remains of an earlier temple, dated to the 6th century BC which itself was erected on the site of a 7th-century BC construction.
This photo begins to show the size of the site, extending over several terraces on the side of Mt Parnassus. The visitor footpath approximates The Sacred Way.
Dramatic and lyric contests were held in the sanctuary theater, which is located above Apollo’s sanctuary and dates from the 4th century B.C.E. On a farther slope is the stadium, home to athletic events and musical contests.
And a quick (and out of focus) photo of me, just to prove I was here. Yes, I’ve grown out the gray.
Even if your knees aren’t up to seeing the actual archaeological site, you can visit the museum. The Delphi Museum houses what has survived of the architecture, statues and dedications from the Pan-Hellenic sanctuary.
The Delphi Archaeological Museum is at the foot of the main archaeological complex. The Sphinx of Naxos is a colossal statue with the head of a woman, the body of a lion and wings of a bird. It is larger than this photo makes it look. Set up around 560 BC as an offering to the temple of Apollo by Naxos, one of the richest Cycladic islands (islands of the Aegean Sea) at the time. The overall height of the statue, the column and base topped 12.5 meters (over 35 feet).
A caryatid from the Siphnian Treasury
Archaic male statues known also as Cleobis and Biton, which were produced between 610 and 580 BC. According to Wikipedia: ” In the legend, Kleobis and Biton were Argives, the sons of Cydippe, a priestess of Hera. Kleobis and Biton were travelling from Argos to Heraion with their much beloved mother, Cydippe, to attend the celebration of the Argive Hera. The oxen which were to pull her cart were overdue and her sons, Kleobis and Biton, pulled the cart the entire way (45 stadia, or 8.3 km/5.1 miles). Cydippe was impressed with their devotion to her and her goddess so that when she arrived at the temple she prayed to Hera, asking her to give her children the best gift a god could give to a mortal. Hera attended the prayer. Then, after they had their sacrifices and dinner and the feast was over, the two young men lay for a rest, tired from their heroic act, inside the temple of Hera where they peacefully died. So, with divine assistance, the brothers through their death gained immortality and eternal recognition for the respect and love they had shown toward their mother. To honor the two men, their fellow citizens sent the two dedicated statues to Delphi.” Whoa. Be careful what you wish for!
Bronze Statue of a Winner of the Chariot Race at the Pythian Games. The bronze is one of the best-known statues surviving from Ancient Greece, and is considered one of the finest examples of ancient bronze work. The life-size chariot driver was found in 1896. Little remains of the chariot and the horse, but a few pieces are reconstructed in a case nearby. The Pythian games were instituted by Apollo as a penance for the slaying of Python. They were only second in importance to those at Olympia. Originally held every eight years, it had become a quadrennial event by 582 BC. Because Apollo was the god of music and the arts, the games here had a very different flavor. They included music as well as feats of physical strength.
The statue of Antinous, protégé of the emperor Hadrian. it is believed to be one of the best depictions of the young man still remaining. Statues of him were erected all over the Roman Empire after his untimely death from drowning in the Nile. The emperor, Hadrian, had him declared a god, which did not go over well.