The oracles of Delphi
At the base of Mount Parnassus, which dominates the mountainous earthquake region north of the Gulf of Corinth in mainland Greece, there existed from the 14th to 11th centuries BC a small Mycenaean village whose inhabitants worshipped the earth goddess Gaia. On the southwestern flank of Parnassus, mysterious intoxicating vapours issued from a small rift in the rock. Long before the arrival of the Greeks, the site was inhabited by native goat herders, and prophetic rites were enacted here under the protection of Gaia’s serpent-son Python. The epic poet Homer (9th century BC) refers to the site as Pytho; from the 7th century BC it was commonly called Delphi.
The Python symbolised what is known in scientific terms as subterranean electromagnetic currents, or telluric currents, borne from the movement of underground streams. Worshippers of the Python knew them as serpent currents; in China they are known as dragon currents; in Australian Aboriginal mythology, the path of the Rainbow Serpent. The ancient Chinese science of geomancy, or feng shui, aims to determine the most beneficial site for a building in relation to the negative and positive influences of such telluric currents.
Key locations around the globe, such as Delphi, occurred at points where vortical or upwardly spiralling electromagnetic fields borne from the movement of underground watercourses were particularly intense, such as where streams crossed. Healing centres and sanctuaries invariably existed at such locations because of the influence of these electromagnetic fields on the human nervous system and onsciousness.
Mastering the serpent current
Between the 11th and 9th centuries BC, the invading Greeks constructed a sanctuary at Delphi, which later became world-renowned for its oracle. Here they installed their presiding and favourite deity, Apollo, god of the sun, prophecy, music and medicine, fabling that he had killed the Python. The myth of Apollo slaying the Python (in transposition, Saint George killing the Dragon) suggests the mastery of reason and civilisation (represented by the god Apollo) over primal forces (the serpent current). Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry and Apollo’s opposite, ruled the sanctuary each winter during Apollo’s self-imposed exile, a period of purification and atonement for his slaughter of the Python. While Delphi was primarily Apollo’s seat, the goddess Athena Pronaos was also honoured here.
The 6th century BC marked the completion of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. The sacred precinct was navigated via a winding path known as the Sacred Way, which led to the magnificent temple of Apollo on whose porch the maxims Know Thyself and Nothing in Excess were carved.
By this time, Delphi had become the religious and political centre of the Hellenic world, its oracle enjoying widespread fame and pre-eminence. The Greek conquerors had formed a sacred elite at Delphi where high priests could be appointed. They utilised the potent energy of the site for controlled oracular purposes. Greek city-states, foreign envoys and individuals alike consulted the Delphic oracle before such undertakings as war, marriage, business transactions or legal action. Much of the Greek expansionist and colonisation programs around the Mediterranean were orchestrated on the answers given at Delphi, as were many other political and social issues.
A venerated woman of Delphi, known as the Pythia, was appointed by the priests to express the will of Apollo to those who consulted the oracle. In the early years of the sanctuary, the Pythia was young and virginal; later it was ruled that she should be over 50 years of age. The Pythia resided in the sanctuary of Apollo and her life had to be irreproachable in all respects. In the oracles heyday there were three Pythias. During the oracles decline when hardly anyone consulted it, the number of Pythias was reduced to one. Except for the Pythia, women were denied admission to Apollos temple.
Certain rites of purification and sacrifice, as well as the payment of a fee by the enquirer, were required before an oracular pronouncement was delivered. The Pythia would burn laurel and barley flour on the hearth of the temple of Apollo where the immortal fire was kept. Next, she would descend to the underground nave of the temple, drink some water from the sacred Castalian Spring that flowed through the subterranean shrine and chew laurel leaves. Then she would mount the sacred golden tripod that stood by the omphalos, a semi-spherical sculpted marble block that identified Delphi as the navel of the world. Traditionally, the omphalos was regarded as the grave of the Python. In keeping with the legend of Zeuss discovery of the centre of the world, it was flanked by two gilded eagles.
The Pythia then inhaled the fumes rising from the volcanic fissure in the earth. A deep trance condition arising from the intake of the vapours would prompt her to deliver Apollos oracular revelations. In a transcendental state of consciousness she would begin to speak on the questions posed by the applicants, delivering seemingly meaningless utterances that required interpretation. The priests noted down her words and interpreted them in either verse or prose. Oracular responses were delivered in a certain predetermined order: first, for the citizens of Delphi; then for those who had been honoured by the town; last, for those who belonged to neither group, in an order drawn by lot.
The Delphic oracle did not foretell events but offered guidance. It was renowned for ambiguity. The key to the oracles was not to reveal or conceal a truth but to give signs that required interpretation by the parties concerned. Because the Pythias utterances were transcribed by the chief priest into verses that were often ambiguous, the enquirers were usually left to make sense of the oracular pronouncements themselves. The oracles written by the priests from the utterances of the Pythia constituted the real power of the sanctuary.
One of the most famous misinterpretations of the oracle, as told by the historian Herodotus (5th century BC), occurred in 560 BC when King Croesus of Lydia sent his representatives to Delphi to ask whether he should launch a campaign of attack against the Persians. Croesus was naturally overjoyed when the oracle ""foretold that if [he] attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire"". However, he never envisaged that the great empire to be destroyed would be his own.
In 168 BC, control of the Delphic oracle passed to Rome. The oracle ceased playing an influential role in political affairs and its decline was inevitable. The final collapse came some years later. Belief in Olympian gods, such as Apollo, waned as people turned in ever-increasing numbers to the teachings of Christianity. The site was abandoned in the 4th century AD.
Today, the surviving fragments of this once-glorious sanctuary give little indication of Delphis past artistic glory and structural beauty. At one time the general appearance of Delphi was of a vast rocky amphitheatre dominated by the temple of Apollo and dramatically framed by the surrounding mountains. Earthquakes have destroyed the buildings and closed the vent from which the oracles mysterious working gas issued.
In 1891, French excavators removed the modern village of Kastri and dug up what the earthquakes and spoilers had spared. However, the spirit of place remains and the energy fields persist. Sitting by the ancient ruins, especially at sunset or in the quiet of early dawn, you can experience a strangely intense intimacy with this arcane area while imaginatively reflecting on its golden age.