A day in the life of the Oracle of Delphi - Mark Robinson
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The inspiration of the PythiaThere has been much speculation amongst scholars about what actually inspired the Pythia. The Greeks never recorded details about this, apparently assuming that the process was common knowledge and did not need any explanation. It was not until the Oracle had been operating for over 500 years that details were written down. Some accounts claim that she sat above a natural chasm in the rock and breathed in fumes rising from the earth. In the first century CE the ancient writer Plutarch mentions the pneuma (a breeze or breath) that filled the temple. Other Roman writers say that the Pythia chewed on laurel leaves, and gradually the story developed that she was in a kind of trance when she uttered her prophecies. Some recent geological surveys appear to have found possible evidence for this, but the exact process will never be known.
The Site of DelphiThe fame of Delphi saw it develop into much more than just an Oracle. A host of structures sprang up around the temple: treasuries built by competing city-states, statues of heroes and trophies of war. There was a purpose-built sports facility: a theatre, stadium and a hippodrome. Every four years, Delphi hosted the Pythian games, second only in importance to the Olympics. These culminated in chariot races, especially popular because they allowed the richest Greeks to compete with one other. But it wasn't just individuals who wanted to use Delphi to brag of their greatness. Greek cities tried to outdo one another with lavish gifts and new buildings. The island of Chios dedicated a huge altar opposite the entrance to the Temple of Apollo, and on this they later inscribed their right to jump to the front of the queue (promanteia), visible to everyone waiting to visit the Pythia. Delphi became crowded with offerings as consultations continued for centuries. Only when the Roman emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism in the empire in the early 390s CE was the voice of the Pythia finally silenced. After years of neglect, the site was excavated in the 19th century, and is a major tourist centre today.
ReputationHow did the Oracle survive so long? Critical to understanding this is to think about why the Greeks consulted oracles. The temple’s two inscriptions (‘Know yourself’ and ‘Nothing in excess)’ give a clue as to the function of the Oracle. It was not really about revealing the future, but about challenging the visitor to think through an issue or re-examine a problem. One of the most famous stories connected to Delphi was the visit in 547 BC of Croesus, king of Lydia and the wealthiest man in the world. He asked the Oracle what would happen if he invaded Persia. The Pythia’s answer to Croesus’ ambassadors was: ‘If you invade Persia, a great empire will fall.’ Croesus took this to be approval of his aggressive intentions, but then found to his cost that the ambiguous prophecy actually referred to his own downfall. Thus the Pythia was not really telling fortunes, but offering guidance. As Heraclitus wrote: ‘the Oracle neither conceals, nor reveals, but indicates.’
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