Ancient Delphi, the Oracle of the Gods
People would journey to ancient Delphi from all over the world, especially during the sanctuary’s heyday (6th to 4th centuries BC), to seek wisdom from the gods on vital affairs of state. A guide explains how the clever priests knew what advice to dispense.
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A two-hour drive northwest of Athens takes us to Delphi, one of the most important sights in the ancient world.
Wherever you travel, seeing the precious artifacts in the big city museums first helps you better appreciate the historic sites out in the countryside.
Ancient Delphi, perched high on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos, was not a city. It was the site of the oracle of Apollo, god of the sun. People would journey here from all over the known world to seek wisdom from the gods on vital affairs of state.
Today tourists zigzag up the ancient Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo. The path is flanked by the remains of Delphi's famous treasuries — monuments erected by city-states in gratitude for the oracle's advice.
Local guides like Penny Kolomvotsou brings these ancient and mythic events to life.
Rick: So, tell me why this place was chosen for the oracle.
Penny: Zeus wanted to know where the center of the world was. He let two eagles fly from the two opposite ends of the universe and this is where they met, here in Delphi.
Rick: So, he called this basically the bellybutton of the world.
Penny: Yeah, the omphalos, yeah, this wonderful place became the center of the world.
The resulting Sanctuary of Apollo reached the height of its power between the sixth and the fourth centuries BC. The oracle became so influential that no great leader would make a major decision without first sending emissaries to consult the oracle.
Penny: There was a priestess inside the Temple and right underneath it there was this room where she was inhaling vapors evaporating from the ground. So, she was in trance.
Rick: So, she would babble, and the priests would say this is wisdom from the gods.
Because the priests debriefed those seeking advice on the state of their homelands, Delphi became the data base of the ancient world. Because of that the priests here were actually able to astound those who came with their wise, believably divine, advice. And there was more to Delphi than just the oracle.
Rick: So, people from all over the Greek-speaking world came here.
Penny: Correct. And apart from coming here to consult the oracle, the other reason was also because, like in Olympia they had the Olympic Games, here in Delphi we had the Pythian Games. Yeah, these were competitions concerning music, poetry, sport events as well.
Rick: So, a balance of things. Music and sports.
Penny: Yeah, everything in moderation, no vices. The Golden Mean and everything. So we’ve got the theater, we’ve got the stadium…
During those pan-Hellenic (or "all-Greek") festivals, Delphi filled its theater, which seated 5,000. And it packed as many as 7,000 sports fans into its stadium. I like being here at the end of the day — with the tourists gone, cheers of the long-gone crowds still ringing in the cool mountain air, and the starting block all mine.