Monday, 28 February 2011

The Oracle of Delphi

At Delphi, on a mountainside overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, stood a temple to Apollo which was one of the most famous and respected in the whole Greek world.

The fame of Delphi was due to the fact that the chief priestess was believed to be able to talk directly to Apollo, and to ask him questions on behalf of the humans who visited the temple.

A place where humans could  talk to the gods was known as an oracle. The oracle at Delphi was considered to be the greatest in the world.

According to legend, Apollo killed a terrible serpent named Python at Delphi. To celebrate this feat he set up an altar to himself and persuaded a group of sailors from Crete to settle there as his priests.

People who wished to consult the god at Delphi had to climb the mountain, then bathe in the waters of a sacred spring. They were then allowed into the sacred precincts of the temple.

After waiting for the chief priestess, the Pythia, to announce she was ready, the men were led into the temple and to a small dark room near the back. Here they told the Pythia the question that they wanted to ask the god Apollo.

The Pythia then climbed on to a metal stool with three legs that spanned a bottomless crack in the rocks from which came volcanic gasses. The Pythia fell into a trance during which she was believed to become possess by Apollo.

Sometimes the Pythia answered the question in verse, sometimes in ordinary speech and sometimes by incoherent rantings, which were translated by a priest.

The answers given by the oracle at Delphi are often said to have been either obscure or to have two meanings. For instance, King Croesus was told that if he invaded Persia he would destroy a mighty kingdom. He did, but the kingdom that was destroyed was his own, not Persia.

Some answers were very clear. In 480bc the oracle told representatives from Athens “Pray to the winds”. The Athenians did and a storm destroyed much of the Persian invasion fleet.

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