The wider world: Delphi

The next stage of the story will take us outside Athens and Attica to other parts of the Greek world: Delphi, Olympia, Epidaurus, Ionia and Sparta. So it will be helpful to know something about them first.

And from there you went speeding swiftly to the mountain ridge, and came to Krisa beneath snowy Parnassus, a foothill turned towards the west: a cliff hangs over it from above, and a hollow, rugged glade runs below. There the lord Phoebus Apollo resolved to make his lovely temple

In myths dating to the classical period (510-323 BC), the site of Delphi was believed to be established by Zeus when he sought to find the centre of “Grandmother Earth” (Ge, Gaea, or Gaia). He sent two eagles flying from the eastern and western extremities, and their flights crossed over Delphi where the omphalos, or navel of Gaia, was found.

Earlier myths include traditions that Pythia, or the Delphic oracle, was already the site of an important oracle in the pre-classical Greek world (as early as 1400 BC0; rededicated, it served as the major site during classical times for the worship of the god Apollo after he slew Python, a ‘dragon’ who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. The Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo (above) recalled that the ancient name of this site had been Krisa. Others relate that it was named Pytho and that Pythia, the priestess serving as the oracle, was chosen from their ranks by a group of priestesses who officiated at the temple. While in a trance the Pythia raved – probably a form of ecstatic speech – and her ravings were ‘translated’ by the priests of the temple into hexameter verse. People consulted the Delphic oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs.

Apollo’s sacred precinct in Delphi was a panhellenic sanctuary, where every four years, starting in 586 BC, athletes from all over the Greek world competed in the Pythian Games. These were one of the four panhellenic games which were precursors of the modern Olympics. The victors at Delphi were presented with a laurel crown (stephanos) which was ceremonially cut from a tree by a boy who re-enacted the slaying of Python. Delphi was set apart from the other games sites because it also hosted the mousikos agon, musical competitions.

In the inner hestia (hearth) of the Temple of Apollo, an eternal flame burned. After the battle of Plataea (479 BC), the Greek cities extinguished their fires and brought new fire from the hearth of Greece at Delphi. Also, in the foundation stories of several Greek colonies, the founding colonists were first dedicated at Delphi.

The oracle could not be consulted during the winter months, for this was traditionally the time when Apollo would live among the Hyperboreans. Dionysus would then be honoured in his place.

Delphi - the theatre and Temple of Apollo

Delphi – the theatre and Temple of Apollo


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