How did the Oracle of Delphi work

Throughout the ancient world oracles and diviners practiced their arts, giving insights to the future that both commoners and nobles wanted to know about. Some of these clairvoyants achieved great fame, others were not even recorded in history and a few became legendary icons.

 Perhaps the most famous of the ancient oracles and certainly the most important and trustworthy for the ancient Greeks, was the Oracle of Delphi, where Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, gave her famous ambiguous prophecies. 

According to ancient Greek mythology, the father of gods Zeus released two eagles: one headed west and the other east and after circumnavigating the world they met over a stone at Delphi where the omphalos or navel of mother earth Gaia was found and thus the site was considered the center of the world by the ancient Greeks.

 There, lived Python, a serpent-like monster that guarded the stone and the oracle that was dedicated to Gaia. Python would have lived a quiet life had he not taken part in one of Zeus’ and Hera’s feuds. The Queen of the Gods was angry at her husband for his infidelity that had resulted in Leto, his newest lover, being pregnant with Artemis and Apollo. So Hera commanded the monster to chase the unfortunate Leto in order to stop her from giving birth. That didn’t come to pass however and the God of Music and Light, Apollo, would exact his revenge when he slew the dragon using his golden bow and arrows, made by Hephaustus himself and took over Python’s former home and oracle. 

Read also: Rise of Gods in Greek mythology

Another myth tells us that he guided some Cretan priests to the holy site in the form of a dolphin and was thus called and worshipped as Apollo Delphinieus. These two myths might have given the names to the town and to Apollo’s high priestess. The town Delphi, in honour of the God of the Art of Prophecy himself and Pythia from Python, the legendary monster Apollo had slain. While little is known of individual Pythias, historian Plutarch who came from a small town near Delphi gives us some of the characteristics all Pythias had to possess. 

Every priestess had to be Delphic and was chosen, at least in Plutarch's time, from one of the most esteemed and respected families of the city. However, that didn’t necessarily mean noble families. In fact, Plutarch's Pythia came from a poor family of peasants. Once chosen, the priestess served Apollo for life committing herself to strenuous exercise and of course chastity.

 While originally the priestesses had to be young virgins, this would change from the 2nd century BC. Diodorus of Sicily informs that after an incident where a man named Echecrates of Thessaly, kidnapped and raped the Pythia, the Delphians declared that the Oracle should be a woman of more than fifty years of age, so as to not sexually excite the consultants, but that she would continue to wear the maiden's garment in honour of her predecessors. In earlier hundreds of years the asylum was excessively occupied to the point that three Pythias must be utilized whenever, however before the finish of the principal century AD the Oracle's prominence had declined such a lot of that one priestess was sufficient to adapt to the quantity of clients. The prophetess gave her consultations only once per month which was thought to be the 7th day coinciding with Apollo's birthday. Furthermore, she was only available 9 months a year, as during the winter months it was thought that Apollo was absent from Delphi and residing with the people of Hyperborea, leaving in his place the god of wine Dionysus. On the nine days of the year that were reserved for an oracular consultation the day would progress as follows. 

At dawn the priestess would head down and bathe at the Castalian spring near the sanctuary. 

After she had decontaminated her body she would get back to the sanctuary to consume a contribution of shrub leaves and grain to Apollo and perhaps joined by an expressed praise to each god regarded at the sanctuary.

At the same time the male priests of Apollo would make sure that the god was willing to be consulted. This they would do by sprinkling cold water on the head of a goat which had to be pure and without visible defects. 

If the goat shuddered then the god was happy and the animal would be carried to Apollo’s altar outside the temple to be sacrificed. Then the consultation could go ahead. Pythia wasn’t the only one who had to be purified. The visitors who wanted Apollo’s advice had to purify themselves as well by using water from the local springs. Then they would be organized into groups that would enter in an order that was determined by a set of strict rules. First to enter were of course the local Delphians, followed by Greeks whose city was part of the Amphictyony, the powerful governing council of the sanctuary. Finally, other Greeks and non-Greeks would enter. 

However there was a way to cheat the system and skip to the front of the line, the so-called promanteia. This was awarded to individuals or cities as a thanks for their deeds or offering to the shrine. But while the promanteia would allow visitors to cut in line they would still have to pay the monetary price. This was not collected directly but rather the customers of the Oracle had to buy the pelanos, which was a small cake that was burned on the altar as an offering. The price for this sacrifice varied between. 

The compensation if an entire city was seeking the oracle’s consultation was significantly higher than that for individuals, but prices also differed between each city and each individual depending on previous arrangements with the temple. Some people like Croesus, the king of Lydia, had been awarded the high honor of not paying at all. When the consultant's turn had finally come he would enter the inner part of the temple where he would perform another sacrifice, usually that of an animal.

 If he was not of Delphian origin, he had to be accompanied by a local who acted as a representative or proxenos. Once this second sacrifice was completed, he would move forward and Pythia who was seated in the adyton would begin her consultation. The adyton where Pythia resided a restricted area of the temple that besides the prophetess and the tripod that she was seated on, also contained the stone where the eagles of the myth had met, the omphalos, as well as the tomb of Dionysus. 

Apollo, the protector and the honoured god of the sanctuary naturally couldn’t be absent from the mystical and innermost part of the temple. Two statues of Phoebus, one made of gold and the other made of wood, and a laurel tree stood beside the god’s oracle. Due to the lack of sources it is difficult for us to reconstruct the inner architecture of the temple and to tell exactly who was present. Plutarch informs us that the consultants stayed in a separate room. If that is true then their question was relayed orally or written to one of Apollo’s priests who in turn passed it to Pythia and returned with her answer.

 If so, was the answer an interpretation of what the priests had heard from the oracle? Was it truly an answer coming from divine inspiration Pythia received from Apollo or made up by the priests? No other subject surrounding the Oracle of Delphi has been debated more than how Pythia received enlightenment to give her response. Early ancient sources mention the prophetess uttering cries and shaking a branch of laurel. Diodorus of Sicily is the first to mention a chasm below Pythia from where vapors arose and gave Pythia her prophetic abilities.

 While other writers agree to the existence of the whole, they claim that it just led to a place where the oracle physically descended and prophesied from. Lucan seems to agree with Diodorus, claiming that she was possessed by Apollo’s spirit after inhaling the vapors, while Lucian in the 2nd century A.D. tells us that Pythia chewed laurel leaves and drank water from the Castalian spring for inspiration.

 Plutarch on the other hand merely mentions that the pneuma filled the temple but gives no description of its exact nature. He also commented that the Pythia didn’t rant and was instead calm and peaceful between her oracular sessions, contradicting the earlier sources. Diodorus’ and subsequent agreeing accounts thus painted the popular modern image of Pythia being in a trance state by the intoxicating fumes that emerged from the ground and ranting incomprehensible answers that had to be interpreted by the priests around her. Researchers and archeologists have tried for decades to find either the ventilation system or the exact nature of the gas. 

One theory states that these vapors were in fact ethylene which would also correspond with Plutarch’s account of a “delightful fragrance” that filled the temple. However, this proposed idea does have its weak points as stated by other researchers. First of all the ethylene that was found at the site of Delphi, namely in the waters of the Kerna spring, reached concentrations of 0.3 nanomoles per liter. To put this into perspective a typical university classroom will contain several times this amount as a result of the students breathing. Another obstacle for this theory is ethylene’s flammability; after reaching over 2.7% concentration in the air it becomes highly combustible. We can safely assume that fire must have existed inside the temple in lamps and braziers and Plutarch even informs us that the burning of incense was part of the ritual, yet there is no record of the temple bursting in flames or exploding. On the other hand if the ethylene in the atmosphere reached levels where combustion would be impossible then Pythia wouldn’t be able to breathe. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the French archaeologists who originally excavated the ancient site in the 1890’s were unable to find any such chasm as described by some of the ancient sources, much to their disappointment. 

The world was in fact so disappointed at that time by the lack of findings that some scholars argued that the entire Oracle was a sham created by the priests of Apollo for easy money while others argued that the laurel leaves or other plants like oleander might have been responsible for giving Pythia a high. Another theory that tried to explain Pythias divine inspiration was put forward by Herbert Parke and Donald Wormell in the 1950’s who argued that it was a form of self-hypnosis. However, the idea of intoxicating gaseous emissions persisted in the minds of many and in recent decades researchers have claimed to have found geological faults underneath the site and possible fissures that could have let gasses escape upwards, towards the adyton. Still, as we have already mentioned, some oppose this notion and the subject remains debatable amongst scholars. While we are intrigued by the mechanism that set Pythia in a prophetic rave, if such a thing even happened at all, the ancients didn’t seem to care. For them the fact that Apollo was speaking through Pythia was far more important. And certainly for those who came to the sanctuary seeking advice and answers to their problems, Pythia’s reply would be their primary concern instead of theological debates.

 These answers came in the form of hexameters that were usually open to interpretation and sometimes used grammatical tricks to ensure the Oracle’s reply was always correct. But the question that was put forward to the oracle had to be of a certain nature and usually was of the “Should I do x or y” form. Vague questions were met with equally vague and ambiguous answers from Pythia. A great example is Croesus’s question of which ancient Oracle was the best. After many years the king of Lydia submitted a second question to the Delphic Oracle, asking whether he would win against the Persians or not. Pythia’s answer to this is a prime example of the ambiguous replies the Oracle gave and one if not the most famous. If you campaign against Persia you will destroy a great empire, was Pythia’s response. 

Emboldened by this Croesus attacked the Achaemenid Empire but ultimately lost the war and his kingdom, and only then understood that he had interpreted the cryptic answer wrong. Because of the answers the Delphic Oracle gave, Apollo who was the God of the Prophesying art and the deity of the sanctuary, was also called Loxias, meaning ambiguous. 

However, none could accuse the shrine and Pythia of lying or misleading through her responses. After all these came to be true and any faults regarding the interpretation lay with the person that had asked the question. It was partly because of these answers that the Delphic Oracle came to be the most famous and well-respected oracle in the ancient Greek world. Its importance grew beyond the oraculations.

 People gathered there to watch or participate in the Pythian games, the second most important competition in ancient Greece, behind only the Olympics. Finally, some people visited the site neither for Apollo, nor the games, but as tourists who simply wanted to admire the famous riches the sanctuary had accumulated through donations and the services it provided. Yet nothing lasts forever and the Oracle of Delphi would be no exception. 

The sanctuary’s declining popularity in Plutarch’s time would only worsen with the spread of Christianity in the area. Julian the Apostate tried to reverse the anti-pagan climate of his era but his short-lived reign bore no fruit. When Oribasius, Julian’s doctor visited the desolate Oracle on behalf of the emperor in 362, he asked Pythia about the future of paganism, only to receive a grim reply that would also be one of the prophetess’ last. -“Tell the king, the splendid hall fell to the ground. Phoebus no longer has his home, nor the forecasting shrub, nor the talking admirably.

The speaking water has dried out” Pythia’s prophecy once again came true as almost two decades later, during the pagan persecutions of Theodosius I in 381 AD the sanctuary was shut down.

 The closure of the Delphic oracle can be seen as a symbolic end of the old pagan world of the Greco-Roman pantheon and the herald of Christian dominance in the east Mediterranean for the next three centuries.