...and in as much as at the first on the hazy sea
I sprang upon the swift ship in the form of a dolphin,
pray to me as Apollo Delphinius; also the altar itself
shall be called Delphinius and overlooking for ever.
Homer, To Apollo (probably a work of some other poet )



Oracle 1. a person (as a priestess of ancient Greece) through whom a deity is believed to speak 2. a person considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinions. Delphi. The center of the Greek World.

There is surely no more impressive site in the world than the Temple of Apollo at Delphi on Mount Parnassus; of all the glorious holy places, this site of the Oracle of Delphi established the link between music and mystery.... The word music itself comes for the Greek word musiki, meaning all the arts of the nine Muses. Apollo, son of Zeus, was the leader of the Muses, as master athlete and warrior as well as master musician. Mount Parnassus came to be thought of as the home of music. Yehudi Menuhin, The Music of Man

Delphi Reconstruction

They had not seen, for ages, such beautiful gifts in Delphi
as these that had been sent by the two brothers,
the rival Ptolemaic kings. After they had received them
however, the priests were uneasy about the oracle. They will need
all their experience to compose it with astuteness,
which of the two, which of such two will be displeased.
And they hold secret councils at night
and discuss the family affairs of the Lagidae.

But see, the envoys have returned. They are bidding farewell.
They are returning to Alexandria, they say. And they do not ask
for any oracle. And the priests hear this with joy
(of course they will keep the marvellous gifts),
but they also are utterly perplexed,
not understanding what this sudden indifference means.
For they are unaware that yesterday the envoys received grave news.
The oracle was given in Rome; the division took place there.
Constantinos Kavafis, Envoys from Alexandria, Kavafis probably considers the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (Physcon).


Image of the Kylix

Aegeus, King of Athens, consulting the Delphic Oracle, Pythia sitting on the Delphic Tripod Cauldron, Red Figure Kylix.

Apollo's first achievement was to kill the dragon (or giant serpent) Pytho protecting the sanctuary of Pytho from its lair beside the Castalian Spring. There it stood guard while the Sibyl gave out her prophecies as she inhaled the trance inducing vapors from an open chasm. However, to make amends for killing Pytho, as the fearsome beast was the son of Gaia, Apollo had to serve king Admetus for nine years as a cowherd. This he did, and when he returned to Pytho he came in the guise of a dolphin bringing with him priests from Crete. Apollo's cult title "Delphinios" meaning dolphin or porpoise, is probably how Delphi was so named. After killing Pytho and taking possession of the oracle, Apollo was called Pythian Apollo. He dedicated a bronze tripod to the sanctuary and bestowed divine powers on one of the priestesses, and she became known as the Pythia. Python actually means serpent but there is a possibility that Pythia is derived from pythao [to rot], since Apollo left the body of the serpent to rot in the sun.

According to a story written by Diodorus Siculus the site of Delphi was discovered by a goatherd who trying to find some lost animals found a chasm from which a gas was emitted and he realized its effect.

In Greek Mythology Delphi is the centre of the world that Zeus determined by two eagles which flew from Mount Olympus in opposite directions and met at a point in Delphi marked by Zeus with the omphalos ("navel") stone which his mother Rhea had wrapped with clothes to take Zeus place and fool Kronos, his father. This is a strange story since I don't know how this method determines a center, how this center is defined and what did Zeus assume about the shape of the Earth. More logical we can assume that Delphi is at the same distance from Olympus in two opposite directions. A better explanation is another story where the eagles started at the opposite ends of the world and not from Olympus.

They say that the seat of the oracle is a cavern hollowed deep down in the earth, with a rather narrow mouth, from which rises a pneuma [gas, vapor, breath; hence our words "pneumatic" and "pneumonia"] that produces divine possession. A tripod is set above this cleft, mounting which, the Pythia inhales the vapor and prophesies.
Strabo (64 BC-AD 25)


Apollo with his lyre on the Delphic Omphalos

The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi dates back to 1400 BC. Julian the Apostate (331/332– - 26 June 363), a Roman emperor, tried to revive classical Greek culture in the mid 4-th century AD. He is said to have consulted the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia responded with the following oracle:

Tell to the king that the carven hall is fallen in decay;
Apollo has no chapel left, no prophesying bay,
No talking spring. The stream is dry that had so much to say.

This was probably the last advice from the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle said that the time to revive classical Greek culture has passed, Apollo is dead. Some say that the reason for this answer was that there was no “narcotic” gas (narcotic derived from Narcissus) coming anymore from the ground in Delphi that was used to set the Pythia in trance. Today scientists believe that the gas contained ethylene that in low concentrations produce trancelike states.

Plutarch said that the pneuma smelled like sweet perfume. He also describes how in his times the emission was weak and irregular, the cause, in his opinion, of the weakening influence of the Delphic oracle in world affairs. He suggested that either the vital essence had run out or that heavy rains had diluted it or a earthquake four centuries earlier had partially blocked its vent. Maybe, due to this the pneuma had found a new outlet.

One very interesting prophecy from the Oracle was that the first Greek to step on Trojan soil would be the first who will die in the battle. Although it is more likely that the first soldiers stepping out from their ships more likely would be killed it is different if you know that it is exactly the first who leaves his ship. I can imagine that with this in mind nobody would be interested to leave his ship but Protesilaos, a Greek hero, ignored the warning from the Oracle. Today the sculpture of Protesilaos can be seen in the Louvre, Paris. The Oracle of Delphi is known for the prophecies that could be interpreted in completely different ways.

Another story is the answer to the Lydian king Croesus asking the Oracle is he should attack the Persian king Cyrus. The Oracle said that a great empire will fall if Croesus would cross the River Halys. Stupid enough Croesus did not ask which empire will fall and assumed that it was the Persian empire. The poet Kavafis provides another such story:

Nero was not worried when he heard
the prophecy of the Delphic Oracle.
"Let him fear the seventy three years."
He still had ample time to enjoy himself.
He is thirty. More than sufficient
is the term the god allots him
to prepare for future perils.

Now he will return to Rome slightly tired,
but delightfully tired from this journey,
full of days of enjoyment --
at the theaters, the gardens, the gymnasia...
evenings at cities of Achaia...
Ah the delight of nude bodies, above all...

Thus fared Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly assembles and drills his army,
the old man of seventy three.
Constantinos Kavafis, Nero's Term

Sibylla Delphica, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1868, Manchester City Art Galleries , England

The Pythia, Jacek Malczewski


595-586 war among Greek cities to control Delphi (Sacred war)
582 BC Pythian Games
548 BC Fire destroyed the old Apollo Temple
448 BC Sacred war
356 BC Sacred war (Philomelus, Onomarchus..)
340 BC Sacred war
279 BC invasion of Gauls
189 BC under Roman control
86 BC Sulla sacked the site
51 AD, The Emperor Nero takes 500 statues from Delphi to Rome

Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi

Now, gentlemen, please do not interrupt me if I seem to be making an extravagant claim; for what I am going to tell you is not my own opinion. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the God of Delphi--he will tell you about my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is.
You know Chaerephon, of course. He was a friend of mine from boyhood, and also a good democrat who played his part with the rest of you in the recent expulsion and restoration. And you know what he was like; how enthusiastic he was over anything that he had once undertaken. Well one day he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than myself and the Pythian prophetess answered, that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying. Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of his riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, 'Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.'

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him--his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination--and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,--for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me,--the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, --for I must tell you the truth--the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the 'Herculean' labours, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them--thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.

So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

At last I went to the artisans. I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets;--because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom; and therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.

The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility, hostility of a particularly bitter and persistent kind, which has resulted in various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as a professor of wisdom. This is due to the fact that whenever I succeed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself. But the truth o men of Athens is this: that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as he would say to us “The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.”

Laius asks the Delphic Oracle, the exposed Oedipus taken by a shepherd , French Manuscript 15th c.

Oracle of Delphi and Croesus

At the end of this time the grief of Croesus was interrupted by intelligence from abroad. He learnt that Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, had destroyed the empire of Astyages, the son of Cyaxares; and that the Persians were becoming daily more powerful. This led him to consider with himself whether it were possible to check the growing power of that people before it came to a head. With this design he resolved to make instant trial of the several oracles in Greece, and of the one in Libya. So he sent his messengers in different directions, some to Delphi, some to Abae in Phocis, and some to Dodona; others to the oracle of Amphiaraus; others to that of Trophonius; others, again, to Branchidae in Milesia. These were the Greek oracles which he consulted. To Libya he sent another embassy, to consult the oracle of Ammon. These messengers were sent to test the knowledge of the oracles, that, if they were found really to return true answers, he might send a second time, and inquire if he ought to attack the Persians.

The messengers who were despatched to make trial of the oracles were given the following instructions: they were to keep count of the days from the time of their leaving Sardis, and, reckoning from that date, on the hundredth day they were to consult the oracles, and to inquire of them what Croesus the son of Alyattes, king of Lydia, was doing at that moment. The answers given them were to be taken down in writing, and brought back to him. None of the replies remain on record except that of the oracle at Delphi. There, the moment that the Lydians entered the sanctuary, and before they put their questions, the Pythoness thus answered them in hexameter verse:-

I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean;
I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth;
Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell-covered tortoise,
Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron-
Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.

These words the Lydians wrote down at the mouth of the Pythoness as she prophesied, and then set off on their return to Sardis. When all the messengers had come back with the answers which they had received, Croesus undid the rolls, and read what was written in each. Only one approved itself to him, that of the Delphic oracle. This he had no sooner heard than he instantly made an act of adoration, and accepted it as true, declaring that the Delphic was the only really oracular shrine, the only one that had discovered in what way he was in fact employed. For on the departure of his messengers he had set himself to think what was most impossible for any one to conceive of his doing, and then, waiting till the day agreed on came, he acted as he had determined. He took a tortoise and a lamb, and cutting them in pieces with his own hands, boiled them both together in a brazen cauldron, covered over with a lid which was also of brass.

Such then was the answer returned to Croesus from Delphi. What the answer was which the Lydians who went to the shrine of Amphiarans and performed the customary rites obtained of the oracle there, I have it not in my power to mention, for there is no record of it. All that is known is that Croesus believed himself to have found there also an oracle which spoke the truth. Herodotus , Book I ("Clio")

Oracle of Delphi and Glaucus

Herodotus , Book VI :

“Men of Athens, act which way you choose—give me up the hostages, and be righteous, or keep them, and be the contrary. I wish, however, to tell you what happened once in Sparta about a pledge. The story goes among us that three generations back there lived in Lacedaemon one Glaucus, the son of Epicydes, a man who in every other respect was on a par with the first in the kingdom, and whose character for justice was such as to place him above all the other Spartans. Now to this man at the appointed season the following events happened. A certain Milesian came to Sparta and, having desired to speak with him, said—‘I am of Miletus, and I have come hither, Glaucus, in the hope of profiting by thy honesty. For when I heard much talk thereof in Ionia and through all the rest of Greece, and when I observed that whereas Ionia is always insecure, the Peloponnese stands firm and unshaken, and noted likewise how wealth is continually changing hands in our country, I took counsel with myself and resolved to turn one-half of my substance into money, and place it in thy hands, since I am well assured that it will be safe in thy keeping. Here then is the silver—take it—and take likewise these tallies, and be careful of them; remember thou art to give back the money to the person who shall bring you their fellows.’ Such were the words of the Milesian stranger; and Glaucus took the deposit on the terms expressed to him. Many years had gone by when the sons of the man by whom the money was left came to Sparta, and had an interview with Glaucus, whereat they produced the tallies, and asked to have the money returned to them. But Glaucus sought to refuse, and answered them: ‘I have no recollection of the matter; nor can I bring to mind any of those particulars whereof ye speak. When I remember, I will certainly do what is just. If I had the money, you have a right to receive it back; but if it was never given to me, I shall put the Greek law in force against you. For the present I give you no answer; but four months hence I will settle the business.’ So the Milesians went away sorrowful, considering that their money was utterly lost to them. As for Glaucus, he made a journey to Delphi, and there consulted the oracle. To his question if he should swear, and so make prize of the money, the Pythoness returned for answer these lines following:—

Best for the present it were, O Glaucus, to do as thou wishest,
Swearing an oath to prevail, and so to make prize of the money.
Swear then- death is the lot even of those who never swear falsely.
Yet hath the Oath-God a son who is nameless, footless, and handless;
Mighty in strength he approaches to vengeance, and whelms in destruction,
All who belong to the race, or the house of the man who is perjured.
But oath- keeping men leave behind them a flourishing offspring.

Glaucus when he heard these words earnestly besought the god to pardon his question; but the Pythoness replied that it was as bad to have tempted the god as it would have been to have done the deed. Glaucus, however, sent for the Milesian strangers, and gave them back their money. And now I will tell you, Athenians, what my purpose has been in recounting to you this history. Glaucus at the present time has not a single descendant; nor is there any family known as his—root and branch has he been removed from Sparta. It is a good thing, therefore, when a pledge has been left with one, not even in thought to doubt about restoring it.”

Plutarch discusses the etymology of the Delphic name Bysios. He concludes that it is derived from Pythios (Apollo). He was born the 7th Bysios and it was only this one day of the year where the Oracle of Delphi answered questions (at least in the early days according to Alexandrides and Callisthenes).. Later there was no such restriction (I guess for financial reasons).


Angelos Sikelianos, Greek Poet, Revival of Delphi

See also: Delphi by George Seferis. From "The Charioteer" , An Annual Review of Modern Greek Culture, No 35, 1993-1994

Michelangelo's rendering of the Delphic Sibyl "The scroll which she unrolls in her left hand is the scroll of her prophecy. The two little figures holding a book, just behind her right shoulder, are genii, or spirits, symbolic of her inspiration.", Estelle M. Hurll

Temenos of Apollon in Delphi

Prophets and Sibyls by Perugino, Details from a Fresco Perugia, Collegio del Cambio


Gigantomachy from the Siphnian Treasury

Famous oracular statements from Delphi


John R. Hale, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, Jeffrey P. Chanton and Henry A. Spiller , Questioning the Delphic Oracle, When science meets religion at this ancient Greek site, the two turn out to be on better terms than scholars had originally thought. Scientific American

The Delphic and other Sibyls

Introduction: The Forms of Delphi , Mythological and Historical Accounts of Delphi, the Center of the World

Information about Oracles in Greece (Select the dots on the Map of Greece)

The Julian Society

Oration upon the Sovereign Sun. Addressed to Sallust

Oration upon the Mother of the Gods

Faults Suggest a High Calling for Delphi Priestesses


Pythia as Ancient Therapist , An Introduction to the Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle of Delphi and Ancient Oracles, an annotated guide edited by Tim Spalding

Delphi guide

Kavafis: Like the ancients

Kavafis and Julian the Apostate

Celts versus the Greeks under Brennos - the sack of Delphi

Oracle of Delphi and Homer

The Delphic Games Revival

Grove of the Muses on Mount Parnassus Drawing after Stackelberg, early 19th century. M. Maas, Das Antike Delphi. Orakel, Schätze, Monumente

Knowing when to consult the oracle at Delphi

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