History of the Oracle of Delphi Part 3

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


The words of the Pythia as recorded by the priests were often vague or cryptic or had double meanings. In one case, the Pythia ignored the question and gave information on a totally different matter. A Greek named Battus, who was a stutterer, asked the Pythia for a cure for his speech impediment. Instead, she told him that he would found a city and empire in North Africa. Battus did build the city of Cyrene in Libya, thus fulfilling the prophecy, but he stammered for the rest of his life.

The Pythia's predictions were also sometimes wrong. In the 7th century B.C., King Aristodemus of Messenia asked the oracle how to defeat his neighbors, the Spartans. The Pythia replied that he must put to death a virgin of royal blood. Despite the fact that Aristodemus sacrificed his own daughter, he was still defeated by the Spartans, who conquered his country. Defenders of the oracle asserted that Aristodemus had made a false assumption concerning his daughter's sexual status.

The most famous, and one of the most misleading, Delphic predictions was given to King Croesus of Lydia. In 550 B.C., Croesus was preparing to invade the Persian Empire, but decided that he should first consult the Delphic oracle about his chances for victory. After sacrificing 300 head of cattle to Apollo, Croesus had gold and silver melted down into 117 bricks, which he sent to Delphi along with jewels, statues, and a gold bowl weighing a quarter of a ton.

With these gifts, Croesus sent his question of whether he should attack Persia. The Pythia answered that, if he went to war, "Croesus will destroy a great empire." Encouraged by this response, he invaded Persia, only to be decisively beaten in battle. The Persians invaded and conquered Lydia and captured Croesus. Imprisoned by the Persians, Croesus bitterly denounced the Delphic oracle for having deceived him. After receiving permission from his captors, Croesus sent his iron chains to Delphi with the question Why did you lie to me? The Pythia answered that her prediction had been fulfilled. Croesus had destroyed a great empire--his own.

The oracle reached its height during the 6th century B.C., but by the 4th century B.C. its influence began to wane. The temple of Delphi was sacked numerous times during Rome's period of ascendancy, and with the growth of Christianity the voice of Apollo was extinguished. Although one last attempt was made to restore the sanctuary in the 4th century A.D., the power of the Delphic oracle was gone forever.

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