Zeus was seeking the center of the world. To find this out, he released two eagles, one to the east and another to the west and commanded them to fly across the earth to meet at its center. It was at Delphi that the two eagles finally met, and Zeus placed a dome-shaped stone under the glens of Mount Parnassus as a sign to humanity. This stone, placed at the center of the earth, was considered for the ancient Greeks as the navel of the world and one of the most sacred sites. Thus, Delphi became home to the most important religious sanctuary and oracle of ancient Greece.
The Delphic oracle was sacred to the god Apollo who was able to speak through his oracle and his priestess (the Pythia). Pythia was highly-regarded that she channeled prophecies from Apollo himself, while steeped in a dreamlike trance. Pythia sat on a tripod over a chasm and inhaled fumes emitted from the earth and vapors by burned bay branches. Then, she would have fallen into a trance state allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state, she would mutter incomprehensible answers to advice seekers, which were then translated by a priest. Although her visions were often cryptic and ambiguous, people would still line up days in advance of the oracle’s appearance. For an ancient Greek, one way of protecting oneself against the uncertainty of life’s decisions and outcomes was to respectfully consult divine authority in order to receive advice and thus be in a position to claim divine endorsement, support, and approval for decisions and actions. And it was not only the individuals who were interested in Pythia’s prophesies but also the city-states.
The city-states, before making important political decisions such as whether to found distant colonies, implement new political constitutions, wage war on other communities, or, in the event of disasters such as plague, famine or defeat in battle, which deity to placate, and how best to placate the deity, would have sent a representative to consult the oracle and learn the gods’ wishes.
Perhaps one of the most famous prophesies of the Delphic oracle was the one that Pythia answered to the Athenians when asked how to defend against the Persians. “‘Though all else shall be taken, Zeus grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail”. In Athens, Themistocles interpreted the statement in a way that matched his own preferred strategy. He argued that the wall of wood referred to the Athenian navy and persuaded the Athenians to use their Laurentian silver to continue building their fleet. Eventually, it was decided the naval interpretation was the correct one, and the Athenians won a spectacular naval encounter at the Battle of Salamis. However, this does not validate the Oracle, exactly, – if they had lost the battle, it would have been assumed that they should have built wooden walls around the city. In another prophesy though, when Lydian King Croesus asked Pythia whether he should go to war with his Persian neighbors, she answered to him “Invade and you will destroy a great empire”. Croesus invaded and destroyed a great empire: his own.
Like so many ancient sites the sanctuary of Delphi was first neglected, and then virtually forgotten during the Christian Era. Kings and generals looted Delphi of its treasures; later, locals hacked up the buildings and used the blocks to build their own houses. The medieval and modern villages sat atop the ancient site until the late 19th century, when the village began to be relocated just around the corner so that archeologists could help Delphi reclaim it’s past.
Today Delphi is the crown jewel of the Greek archeological sites and whoever visits them can see why ancient Greeks chose it to be the center of the world. They have it all: a long and glorious history, spectacular ancient remains, a superb museum and a beautiful location on the slopes of Mount Parnassos. In our opinion, the best way to approach the site is on foot, through the ancient footpath that worshipers used to get to reach Delphi from the mystical Corycean Cave. Corycian Cave, at an altitude of 1.360 m. dedicated to the God Pana and the Corycian Nymphs, was a place for pagan rituals since Neolithic times. The trail descends the southwest part of Parnassos mountain, within a beautiful, dense fir forest and great views of the entire sanctuary and the valley below. Descending the Sacred Way from the cave to the site, located under the vertical cliffs of Parnassos’ mountain, you feel weak, vulnerable, mortal. You feel like a pilgrim who is looking for answers.
Written by Nefeli Papageorgiou