The Oracle of Delphi is probably the most famous oracle in the world. Delphic prophecies shaped political and spiritual life in cradle of modern civilization and helped define the course of history. At the height of Greek civilization, no important decision was undertaken without consulting at Delphi. Wealthy patrons paid a fortune for the chance to petition a prophecy, and even the gods were said to seek advice from the Oracle. Yet today, few remember that the Oracle of Delphi was actually a priestess known as Pythia. The only female prophet recognized in Western literature, Pythia has been largely forgotten, yet curled around the roots of Greek mythology, her secret serpent magic is alive.
Pythia was not always a priestess of Apollo. In fact, the Pythia of Delphi is older and more powerful than the Olympic gods, even Zeus and Apollo, and her prophecies began long before the Greek gods were even born. Gaia (Mother Goddess of Greek mythology) gave birth to other children before the Olympic gods, including Python—a colossal Earth-dragon represented in Greek mythology as the largest snake in the world, and the original Oracle at Delphi. Python was said to have inherited all Gaia’s wisdom and knowledge and as guardian and protector of her sacred city of Krisa, he sent prophecies to his oracle priestess Pythia and inspired her magical visions.
The Olympic gods eventually overthrew Gaia and her firstborn children, and during this battle Apollo slew the great Python and buried his body beneath Pythia’s own temple at Krisa. Adding insult to injury, Apollo also took the Pythia as his own head priestess, thus appropriating the Serpent’s power of prophecy into the Greek pantheon. Krisa, once a sacred center for Gaia’s worship protected by Python, was renamed after the Greek conquests—the new name, Pytho, derived from the Greek verb pythein (πύθειν, “to rot”), a reference to the sickly sweet fumes said to originate from Python’s decaying body. Later, Pytho came to be known as Delphi, after Delphyne, another serpent guardian of Gaia’s center at Krisa. These two guardian serpents of Krisa, one male (Python) and one female (Delphyne), adorn Apollo’s caduceus, the international symbol of medicine and healing. From Krisa to Pytho to Delphi, the Pythia was and has always been the oracle priestess of the House of Snakes, and Gaia’s wisdom of the Serpents continued on and passed down in Greek culture as Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi.
The Pythia of Delphi was well known in Greek society by the end of 7th century BC, and these powerful priestesses continued to be consulted for over a thousand years. Little is known of the exact workings and rituals of Delphi—however, most sources refer to the Pythia issuing prophecies while in a profound trance under the influence of vapors and fumes that rose from a chasm in the Adyton, the inner sanctum of the Oracle. The Pythia sat atop a tall gilded tripod over the underground chasm breathing in the sacred pneuma (fumes that rose directly from Python’s decaying body to inspire her visions). The Pythia also underwent monthly cleansing rituals, including a full ceremony and procession on the seventh day of each month. In this cleansing ritual, the Pythia would bathe in the sacred spring and drink from the holy river before returning to the temple to veil herself in purple and dress in white. Thus attired, she would await a ritual goat sacrifice as the priests of Apollo determined if the time for prophecy was right. Only when the priests of Apollo had declared that the timing was appropriate would Pythia ascend to the adyton over the chasm and begin to receive petitioners.
There are numerous scientific explanations for Pythia’s well-documented visions. For centuries, the commonly accepted theory was that certain gases known to induce hallucinations—ethylene, benzine, and methane—were present in the sweet-smelling pneuma vapors which rose from the chasm. However, the first modern excavations in 1892 found no evidence of chasms or fissures, and thus for the next century scientists and scholars believed the ancient descriptions of a sacred vapor-inspired oracle to be a fantastic tale told to gullible travelers. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and 1990s that a team of geologists, archaeologists, forensic chemists, and toxicologists re-examined the site and discovered that the Temple at Delphi not only has various fissures, but is in fact located precisely at the intersection to two crossing seismic fault lines, one running east-west, the other north-south. These two fault lines could have created vast pressure which vaporized the bituminous earth below the temple, releasing sweet-smelling gases (including the hallucinogenic ethylene) through fissures caused by seismic activity into the adyton of the Pythia.
Another suggested theory is the use of oleander, which was used in Pythia’s ceremonies. The Pythia would burn oleander leaves and inhale their smoke, and the toxic substances of oleander can result in symptoms similar to those of epilepsy, the “sacred disease,” which amounted to the possession of the Pythia by the spirit of Apollo or Python and Gaia in antiquity. A third and interesting theory suggests the use of snake venom rather than ethylene or oleader—when people immunized against snake-bite are bitten by a venomous snake (particularly by a krait, cobra, or another elapid), they experience an emotional and mental state that has been compared to the effects of hallucinogenic substances. This also would explain the sacred visions and the records of the Pythia’s trance and prophecies. Ultimately, these three explanations are not mutually exclusive, and each may have occurred at different times in the history of the oracle.
Throughout the heyday of the Delphic Oracle, each Pythia was probably selected at the death of her predecessor from amongst a guild of priestesses of the temple. These women were all natives of Delphi and were required to have had a sober life and be of good character. Although some were married, upon assuming their role as the Pythia, the priestesses ceased all family responsibilities, marital relations, and individual identity, dedicating their lives in service to the Oracle. According to tradition, Phemonoe (the first Pythia of Delphi) may be the source of the well-known phrase “Know thyself” which can be found carved on the temple lintel at Delphi. Although few people now believe in her legendary powers, her wisdom continues to inspire us today, and it may be said that Pythia’s wisdom teaches us that through knowing ourselves, we are able to penetrate the mysteries of the past and the future.
“Delphi.” Ancient-Greece.org, 2017, ancient-greece.org/history/delphi.html. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
“The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned.” Biblical Archaeology Daily, 1 May 2016,
the-oracle-of-delphi%E2%80%94was-she-really-stoned/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
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