Located amidst breathtaking scenery in central Greece, the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi was the most important sacred site in the Greek world. Revered as early as 1500 BC, the sacred precinct was home to the famous Oracle, in which the god himself counseled his people through the mouth of an intoxicated priestess.
History of the Sanctuary of Apollo
Excavations reveal that Delphi was first inhabited in late Mycenaean times (15th century BC) and that priests from Crete brought the cult of Apollo to central Greece in the 8th century BC. The version of Apollo worshipped on the island was Apollo Delphinios - the god in the form of a dolphin - and it was from this that the holy city derived its name.
As the center of the world and the dwelling place of Apollo, Delphi was thronged with pilgrimsfrom across the ancient world. Generals, kings, and individuals of all ranks came to the Oracle of Delphi to ask Apollo's advice on the best course to take in war, politics, love and family. After the inquirer made a sacrifice, a priestess uttered cryptic pronouncements which were then translated by a priest (see "The Oracle," below, for more details).
The Temple of Apollo seen today at Delphi dates from the 4th century BC. There were two earlier temples on the site: the first was burned in 548 and the second was destroyed by an earthquake. Some archaic capitals and wall blocks are preserved from the first temple and many of wall blocks and some pediment sculptures are extant from the second.
The Pythian Games held at Delphi were one of four Panhellenic games held in ancient Greece, and they attracted competitors from all over the Greek world. Founded in the 6th century BC and held in honor of Apollo, they originally centered around the talents the god exemplified - music and poetry. But soon, athletic competitions were added as well. The best known was a great chariot race, held in the stadium that can still be seen at Delphi. The winners of the Pythian Games received a laurel wreath from the city of Tempe in Thessaly, where Apollo was said to have picked a laurel on his way to Delphi.
The 6th century BC saw the political rise of Delphi and the reorganization of the Pythian Games, ushering in a golden age that lasted until the arrival of the Romans in 191 BC. Numerous treasuries were built in the Sanctuary of Apollo to house votive offerings of grateful pilgrims. In the 4th century BC, a theater accommodating 5,000 spectators was constructed nearby. It was restored in 159 by the Pergamene king Eumenes II and later by the Romans.
The oracle of Delphi was abolished in 393 AD by Emperor Theodosius, who made Christianity the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. No longer used, the temples fell into disrepair and their materials were plundered for new buildings.
Archaeological excavations began in earnest around 1900, and exciting new studies of the site and its geology were carried out in the late 1990s (see "The Oracle," below). Delphi was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
Myth and Mystery
For the ancient Greeks, Delphi was quite literally the center of the world. According to Greek mythology, Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth and they met in the sky above Delphi. Impaling one another with their beaks, they fell to the ground on the very center of the world. The site was marked by the Omphalos, or "navel" stone, a Roman copy of which can be seen in the Delphi Museum.
Before Apollo came along, the serpent Python was the ancient guardian of Delphi's Castalian Spring. Python was the son of the Greek goddes Gaia, or Mother Earth, who was likely the original deity to be venerated at the site. Ancient legend has it that Apollo killed the Python, claiming the spring for himself. He then personally founded the oracle of Delphi, proclaiming:
In this place I am minded to build a glorious temple to be an oracle for men, and here they will always bring perfect hecatombs, both they who dwell in Peloponnesus and the men of Europe and from all the wave-washed isles, coming to question me. And I will deliver to them all counsel that cannot fail, answering them in my rich temple. (Hymn to Pythian Apollo, 285-295)
The Oracle of Delphi
The famous oracles of Delphi were given in a small chamber in the Temple of Apollo called the adyton, which only the Pythia could enter. The Pythia (named for the Python slain by Apollo) was a priestess who spoke as a possessed medium for Apollo, the god of prophecy. Usually a middle-aged peasant woman, she was specially selected and trained for her role. She practiced sexual abstinence and fasting before giving oracles.
Questions were submitted to the Oracle on a tablet, some examples of which survive. When she was delivering oracles, the Pythia was said to be in a mild trance. The Pythia spoke for Apollo in an altered voice and often chanted her responses. The response was then written down and sealed by a priest and given to the inquirer. No copies of any answers have yet been found.
The Oracle only functioned on certain days and under specific circumstances. On one occasion recorded by Plutarch, the Delphi temple authorities forced the Pythia to prophesy on an inauspicious day to please the members of an important embassy. She went to the adyton unwillingly and was seized by a powerful and malignant spirit. In this state of possession, instead of speaking or chanting as she normally did, the Pythia groaned and shrieked, threw herself about violently and eventually rushed at the doors, where she collapsed. The frightened consultants and priests ran away, but later came back and picked her up. She died after a few days.
According to many ancient authors — including historians Pliny and Diodorus, the philosopher Plato, poets Aeschylus and Cicero, the geographer Strabo, the traveler Pausanias, and even a priest of Apollo who served at Delphi: the famous essayist and biographer Plutarch — the Pythia received her oracles from a chasm in the earth that emitted vapors "as if from a spring." Plutarch noted that the gas smelled of sweet perfume. Strabo (64 BC-25 AD) recorded:
They say that the seat of the oracle is a cavern hollowed deep down in the earth, with a rather narrow mouth, from which rises a vapor that produces divine possession. A tripod is set above this cleft, mounting which, the Pythia inhales the vapor and prophesies.
Modern study of the oracle began around 1900, when French excavations of the site were undertaken. When no chasm was discovered that matched the ancient reports, the English classicist Adolphe Paul Oppé declared that no chasm or gases had ever existed at Delphi. His strongly-argued reported was immediately accepted. His theory was reinforced in 1950 when French archaeologist Pierre Amandry added that only a volcanic area, which Delphi was not, could have produced a gas such as the one described in the classical sources.
But in the 1980s, a geological survey discovered an active fault line that ran along the south slope of Mount Parnassus and under the site of the oracle. Given the prevailing opinion, no significance was attached to the find. But faults are known to bring gases to the earth's surface, and experts began to question the accepted doctrine.
Finally, in 1996, further exploration of Delphi was undertaken in order to explore this possibility. This and other recent studies have revealed that:
- The inner sanctum of the Temple of Apollo is sunken (2-4 m below the floor).
- The inner sanctum is asymmetrical: a break in the internal colonnade accommodates some now vanished structure or feature.
- Next to the inner sanctum, built directly into the foundations, is an elaborate drain for spring water, along with other subterranean passages.
- A second fault, the "Kerna fault," ran northwest-southeast across the "Delphi fault" at the oracle site.
- A line of springs that ran through the sanctuary and intersected the temple marked the location of the Kerna fault.
- Travertine deposits (like those at Hierapolis, which has noxious vapors) were found where the spring had flowed.
- Analysis of the water from the Kerna spring in the sanctuary itself revealed the presence of methane, ethane and ethylene - ethylene has a sweet odor.
- An early study had found that a 20% mixture of ethylene produced unconsciousness but that lower concentrations induced a trance state.
- The trance induced by ethylene allows the affected person to remain conscious, sit up, respond to questions, and experience out-of-body feelings and euphoria.
- Ethylene sometimes causes violent reactions, which include wild, incoherent cries and thrashing about.
What to See at the Sanctuary of Apollo
A good map is very useful for touring the ancient ruins of Delphi, as labels aren't always clear and the site is so widespread. Print this map to take along or pick up one at the entrance. It is best to begin one's tour with the museum, as its many treasures will help in visualizing what the bare ruins of Delphi looked like in their glory days.
The best time of year to visit is the spring, when the site is surrounded by blooming almond trees. As for time of day, the best times to avoid tour groups and crowds are early morning, lunchtime, and the last hour or two before closing.
The first stop for ancient pilgrims to the Sanctuary of Apollo was the sacred Castalian Spring that wells up in a ravine in the Phaedriades mountains. All pilgrims ritually bathed here before entering the sacred precinct. Murderers had to bathe their entire body, while everyone else only had to wash their hair.
The spring is the oldest sacred site at Delphi and probably the reason the site was chosen as the abode of Apollo. It is connected with the chemical vapors that arose from the earth to inspire the Pythia's oracles. Two fountains fed by the sacred spring survive: an ancient (c.600 BC) fountain house with a marble-lined basin surrounded by benches; and a Roman fountain with niches for votive gifts.
Sacred Way and Treasuries
The modern visitor to Delphi follows the exact path along the Sacred Way that was followed by ancient pilgrims. The path begins at the southeast corner of the site and winds its way up the hillside, past ancient treasuries and monuments, to the Temple of Apollo. In its heydey, every available space along the Sacred Way at Delphi was filled with treasury buildings, statues and votive offerings. These were donated by important cities to thank the Oracle for helpful advice that led to victories and to establish a presence at the important site of Delphi.
The most notable of these treasuries and offerings is the Treasury of the Athenians, dating from 490 BC. It was funded by the spoils of Athens' victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, which was won after an oracle advising the Athenians to put their faith in their "wooden walls." They understood this to refer to their navy, and went on to win the famous battle at Salamis. The small, Doric-style building with two central columns was reconstructed in 1906 by French archaeologists. The treasury includes a wall covered with Greek inscriptions, including musically annotated hymns to Apollo.
Temple of Apollo
The focus of Delphi, both in ancient times and today, is the Temple of Apollo, dating from the 4th century BC. It originally had 6 columns on the front and 15 on the sides, which were stuccoed over. The exterior was decorated with shields captured from the Persians at Plataea. Today, visitors can see one complete column of the facade and portions of five more columns. Also visible are the foundations of the outer colonnade and the interior sekos.
There were two earlier temples of Apollo on this site: the first was burned in 548 and the second was destroyed by an earthquake. Some archaic capitals and wall blocks are preserved from the first temple and many of wall blocks and some pediment sculptures are extant from the second.
Festivals and Events
The Festival of Delphi is held each summer (usually in June) and features ancient Greek drama and works inspired by ancient drama. Tickets and schedules are usually available at the European Cultural Center of Delphi's Athens office at 9 Frynihou, Plaka (tel. 210/331-2798), and at the center's Delphi office (tel. 22650/82-733), just out of town on the Itea road (set back from the road in a grove of trees).
Quick Facts on the Sanctuary of Apollo
|Names:||Sanctuary of Apollo|
|Categories:||temples; sacred rocks; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||38.483182° N, 22.499399° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Sanctuary of Apollo|
- Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service - "Delphi"
- Odyssey Adventuries - Margaret E. Morden, "Delphi and the Temple of Apollo"
- Scientific American - "Questioning the Delphic Oracle" by John Hale, Jelle de Boer, Jeff Chanton and Rick Spiller, August 2003
- Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, p. 37.
- Blue Guide Greece: The Mainland, 7th ed. (W.W. Norton, 2006), 444-60.
- TripAdvisor - "Delphi tourism" - travel forum on Delphi, lots of hotel reviews and traveler photos
- UNESCO - "Archaeological Site of Delphi" - brief blurb, with links to official documents
- Hellenic Ministry of Tourism - "Delphi"
- Calvin.edu - "Delphi: Pathways to Ancient Myth" - includes clickable map
- Perseus Site Catalog - "Delphi" - lots of scholarly information and images
- The Oracle of Delphi and Ancient Oracles - annotated collection of links and images by Tim Spalding
- Encyclopedia Mythica - "Delphi" - concise overview
- SacredSites.com - "The Temple of Delphi, Greece" - emphasizes mystical and spiritual elements
- Tufts University - "The Feminine Voice at Delphi" by student Leslie DesMarteau
- New York Times - "Fumes and Visions Were Not a Myth for Oracle at Delphi" by William J. Broad, March 19, 2002
- National Geographic News - "Delphic Oracle's Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors" by John Roach
- The Delphic Oracle. H. W. Parke and D.E.W. Wormell. Basil Blackwell, 1956.
- Plutarch's Moralia. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library. 6th printing. Harvard University Press, 1992.
- A Geological Companion to Greece and the Aegean. Michael Denis Higgins and Reynold Higgins. Cornell University Press, 1996.
- New Evidence for the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle (Greece). J. Z. de Boer, J. R. Hale and J. Chanton in Geology, Vol. 29, No. 8, pages 707-711; 2001.
- "The Delphic Oracle: A Multidisciplinary Defense of the Gaseous Vent Theory." Henry A. Spiller, John R. Hale, Jelle Z. de Boer in Journal of Clinical Toxicology, Vol. 40, No. 2, pages 189-196; 2002.
- Photos of the Sanctuary of Apollo - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Sanctuary of Apollo. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.