History of the Oracle of Delphi Part 2

About the history of the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, mythology, Apollo, and seeing the future.

THE DELPHIC ORACLE

Over the centuries the Pythias proved highly accurate in their predictions and won renown as oracles not only with the Greeks but also with peoples all over the Mediterranean world, including Romans and Egyptians, who frequently consulted it. As the reputation of the oracle grew, so did its wealth. Grateful questioners bestowed rich gifts on Delphi. These treasures were used to build a complex of temples, theaters, and lodgings for the growing number of priests who inhabited Delphi. In the 6th century B.C., during the heyday of its power, the oracle received more wealth than it could spend, and treasure-houses were constructed to store the surplus of gold and silver presents.

There also evolved at Delphi an intricate ritualism governing the prophetic process. At first the Pythia was chosen from an aristocratic family by the priests. The necessary qualifications were that she be young, beautiful, and a virgin. When one youthful Pythia became bored with her celibate life and was seduced by a handsome visitor, Delphi was scandalized. After this episode, the qualifications were reversed. The Pythia had to be over 50 years old, and the less attractive she was the better.

Once a month, the Pythia prophesied and answered the questions of supplicants. In preparation, she was purified by bathing in the nearby Castalian spring. After dressing in a long, richly decorated robe and placing a laurel crown on her head, she was escorted by priests to the inner sanctuary of Apollo's temple. In this sanctuary, the Pythia walked up to the omphalos, an egg-shaped rock which marked the center, or navel, of the world. There a priest gave her narcotic laurel leaves to chew, while other priests burned incense, perfume, and bay leaves. Next, the Pythia sat upon the tripod, which stood over a crack in the sanctuary's floor, and inhaled the vapors floating up from the fissure.

Meanwhile, in front of Apollo's temple, the inquirer sacrificed a goat or sheep and then was led by priests into the temple past an enormous gold statue of Apollo. Entering the inner sanctuary, the questioner stood behind a screen so as not to disturb the Pythia. A priest presented her with the question, and she fell into a trance. Soon she went into delirious convulsions, violently jerking her limbs and head and foaming at the mouth. Finally her body stopped gyrating and slumped forward. She uttered nearly incoherent words, which a priest standing next to her wrote down and delivered to the questioner.

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