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Delphi Landscape

Delphi Landscape: photo by Kira Van Deusen

The Oracle of Delphi Athens


The Oracle of Delphi

Know thyself
Nothing in excess
Beware of false certainty.

In ancient times there lived a dragon (or a serpent,) by the name of Python. She had been appointed by her mother, the earth goddess Gaia, to protect sacred Mt. Parnassos and its springs. It is said that she also created trouble among the people. The area where this happened was known even then as the centre of the world. Zeus had sent out two eagles from the ends of the world and this is the place where they met, marked later by a stone called omphalos. Parnassos is also known as the place where the boat landed after the great flood. The area which came to be known as Delphi was located at an important crossroads of trade routes.

Then, in the 8th century BCE, the young god Apollo came from his home on Mount Olympus and attacked Python, who ran down hill from her lookout and took shelter in the sanctuary of the earth goddess near the omphalos. Apollo killed Python there, and took over places already famous long before his time: the Kastalian and Kassotis springs and the Korykian cave, located far up the mountain near Python’s lookout.

In his joy at defeating the dragon, Apollo created the lyre for which he became famous, and began to play it. But since he had killed, he needed to go to Crete for purification. On the way back he learned the art of prophesy from Pan, the goat god of wild places and evocative music.

A temple was raised to Apollo in the place that had been Gaia’s. Over the centuries it was rebuilt several times, after fires, earthquakes and attacks had taken their toll. In the earliest times there was no distinction between sacred land and secular, but later the sacred precinct was set apart.

Along the Sacred Way

Along the Sacred Way: photo by Kira Van Deusen

At this time Greece was just emerging from a dark age. The new time period brought a new state of being, with the many Olympian gods replacing the old gods. A transition perhaps on a scale with the one we are going through now. City states such as Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, took control of the political realm. Male gods took the place of female and a new oracle began to practice in the place where others, channeling Gaia and various spirits, had already spoken for hundreds if not thousands of years. (Archaeology in the area dates back to 1500-1100BC, when there was a Mycenaean village on the spot.) The first of them was Themis, daughter of Gaia. Another is mentioned by Homer as having predicted the Trojan war. Oracles had been practicing in other places as well, but soon Delphi became the most important of them all.

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Women were considered more sensitive to communication with the deity than men, and down through generations various women were selected to be the oracle. After the coming of Apollo they were called Pythia. Most likely they were chosen by a group of priestesses. Little is known about such a group, probably because the women were very secretive. The written record comes entirely from men, who may not have known the inner secrets or may simply not have paid attention. I have wondered if the Pythia reincarnated, as does the Dalai Lama. But although beliefs in reincarnation were widespread among Greek philosophers from the 6th century BC, I haven’t seen anything about this applying to the Pythia. In any case, her acceptance of the position committed her for life.

The name Pythia comes from the same root as Python, and both speak of the body’s return to the earth, (literally from the verb “to rot”.) What their actual relationship was is uncertain although it’s likely Pythia was named for the place where the dragon was buried.

She was now also known as the Oracle of Delphi. Some say the name Delphi came from the word dolphin, since Apollo turned into a dolphin to lead priests from Crete to his new home. Others say the name comes from an ancient Greek word meaning a hollow or womb—a place that, like Delphi, is protected by mountains.

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo with mountains sheltering it from the north.These two mountains are known as Phaedrides—“Bright ones” or “Shining rocks”. Photo by Kira Van Deusen

After Apollo’s last temple was built in the fourth century BCE, the Pythia sat for her divination in a chamber called adyton, located 2-4 metres under the temple. Before that she had sat outdoors in a place near the omphalos stone. At first only young virgins became Pythias, but then one of them was abducted and raped by one of the questioners, probably Ekhekrates of Thessaly in the third century BCE. It was decided—by whom we don’t know—that only older women would become Pythias. They had to be more than fifty years old and living separately from their husbands. They dressed in style of younger women. Some say they were uneducated and that the words of Apollo simply flowed through them, while others say these women were highly educated and had skills that made the divination possible. Their age made them wiser. Although older Pythias must not have been entirely a new phenomenon. The earlier Pythias are portrayed as young, but it would seem that if chosen for life, the young Pythias would have grown old in their position. On the other hand, we know that some died early.

The Pythia had a good livelihood: a house of her own, paid work in the field of justice, and the right to own land. Pythias paid no taxes and often got the best theatre seats! On her days off from her official oracular work, the Pythia might join other diviners in the market, using other time-honoured methods such as rolling dice, reading smoke curls or animal entrails, or yes/no forms such as throwing out beans and counting the numbers of red or black ones. Alphabet oracles were also common. The questioner would choose a stone, each of which had one letter on it. Each letter had its own significance.

The Pythias were much admired for nurturing a just society based on reverence for oaths, respect for human life, and a strong sense of right and wrong. They engaged in humanitarian work including the freeing of hundreds if not thousands of slaves. These were recorded on the foundation of the temple.

They were increasingly involved in politics as the centuries passed. Some say that as political work increased, so did the ambiguity of the oracle’s responses. She had to protect herself. Later still, in Delphi’s decline, the Pythias returned to the more individual personal questions. They had great appreciation for the honest poor. They advised travellers to honour the local spirits of the places they passed through.

The Athenian Treasury

The Athenian Treasury

The springs were located on two intersecting fault lines, as was the temple. There is evidence that the Pythia’s trance was induced by volcanic fumes or hallucinogenic gases, most likely ethylene. The fumes came up from the earth or through the spring water. Some women died from it. Water flowed into the adyton from the sacred spring Kassotis, located near the top of the temple area. Channels led the water and fumes out of the chamber. Some say the temple was placed where it was specifically because of the presence of those fumes. Oracles in other places did not use drugs, relying only on their own powers.

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But of course hallucinogens could only be part of the divination. Pythias needed to be able to connect with the deity and transmit his messages as well. In that sense they were much like shamans and other diviners who were practicing in their own and other cultures. The messages were often spoken in hexameter verse. Greek oral stories were often spoken or sung in the same kind of verse, which may mean that the Pythias had grown up hearing those stories and poetry. They may have been well versed in oral literacy if not written literacy. Their responses to the questioners were so accurate that they remained very powerful for nearly a thousand years.

Their work took place on the seventh day of each month that Apollo was in residence. In the three winter months when Apollo was not in Delphi, many people took parts in Dionysian rites in the Korykian cave, uphill from Apollo’s temple. Some of the Pythias took part in these rites too, including the famous Clea, friend of Plutarch. These winter rites created a balance—Apollo bringing light, reason, and life while Dionysus brought darkness, ecstasy and rebirth.

View from Delphi to the Gulf of Corinth

The view from Delphi to the Gulf of Corinth. Pilgrims would arrive by boat and walk up past olive groves and the sacred precinct to the Temple of Apollo. Photo by Kira Van Deusen

Many questioners would come on the seventh day of the month to ask for answers to urgent questions. Supposedly residents of Delphi had priority, although often generous payments allowed others to jump the line. Rarely did a woman come with a question—usually she would send a man in her place.

With special attention to her hair, the Pythia would bathe in the Kastalian spring, and then go uphill to drink from Kassotis. Pilgrims also washed in water of the Kastalian spring. I’ve heard the spring was created by the winged horse Pegasus when his hoof struck the ground. Nymphs also dwelt in those springs.

Today the area around the Kastalian spring is closed for safety reasons, although water from the spring comes down through a channel to the road where travellers can refresh themselves. Arriving there exhausted on a hot afternoon, I washed my face and hands and found the water unusually invigorating—seemingly not just because it was cold!

Next the questioner would sacrifice a goat. Legend says that in ancient times a goat was the first to experience the effect of the hallucinogenic gases. Long ago a goatherd named Coretas noticed one of his flock going close to a crack in the earth and becoming unusually frisky. The goatherd approached the place and felt the effects himself. From that, the tradition of trance in Delphi was born.

The relationship of people with animals was close. I was much taken by a statue in the Acropolis Museum of a man carrying a sacrificial goat over his shoulders, and with photos at the Museum of Greek Popular Musical Instruments in Athens. The affection between people and animals was palpable.

Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) held the position of high priest for twenty years during Delphi’s decline. He stated: “No oracle is given if the victim does not tremble and shake throughout its whole body, right to the extremity of its hooves, while it is dedicated. It does not suffice if it shakes its head as with other sacrifices. It is necessary that all its members shiver and shake together with a rattling noise. Without these signs it is declared that the oracle does not function, and Pythia is not introduced to it.”

The polygonal wall at the Temple of Apollo

The polygonal wall at the Temple of Apollo. The engineers of 500BCE understood that irregular stones would be more stable than rectangular ones and they were right—the wall is one of the few places that survived through the centuries until the archaeological work in the 19th and 20th centuries. Photo by Kira Van Deusen

The Pythia smudged using barley meal and laurel leaves and then took her seat on a tripod over a well-like chasm or other place where fumes emerged from the earth. She shook laurel branches and spoke in a voice some described as being like the voices of birds. Her words came directly from the spiritual realm, the irrational. Some describe wild howlings while others say her speech was gentle and still other recall the poetry. It’s possible the craziness was later exaggerated, especially by anti-pagan forces, based on a misunderstanding of Plato. He described divine inspiration as mania, a word linked in Greek to mantike, meaning divination. (Scott 2014: 21)

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Socrates once said of the oracle, “The greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven-sent.”

The Pythia’s words were interpreted by male priests, known for their rationality. How did the priests understand her speech if no one else did? Did they study her language and gesture? Or were they also clairvoyant? The messages had allegorical meanings, rather than the everyday. Some wonder if the priests may have changed some of the Pythia’s words or even made them up. Whether or not the Pythia remembered her words when she came back to normal consciousness is open to question.

However it was, the responses were perceived as a mystery. At the same time, it was now up to the questioner to decide what to do as a result. Some messages seemed quite clear and others not. Some people obeyed the seemingly clear messages and others did not. Outcomes were often surprising.

The Greek scholar Pavlos Kavouras speaks about interpretation, in particular of oracles. “The interpreter needs to differentiate between spiritual transcendence on the one hand and the political, or glorification of the secular on the other,” he said at a conference on shamanism. “In life individuals and societies go back and forth.” The oracles, like the gods, are deeply involved with the political, and it’s certain that the ancient Greek government often tried to control the oracle. The political power of Pythias in various time periods has been thoroughly described in Scott’s book (2014) and elsewhere. Politics undeniably played a huge role in their activities, especially during the earlier centuries.

Temple of Athena

Temple of Athena: photo by Kira Van Deusen

Kavouras, whose specialization is music, says that divination is a tuning of humans with non-humans such as spirits. The Pythias were embodied channels. The experience of receiving the messages is a lot like listening to music. Apollo could induce enthusiasmus (altered states) not only in oracles but in poets and musicians.

The oldest known message from Delphi dates from 8th century BCE and the latest is from 362AD not long after “paganism” was banned by the Christian Emperor Theodosius. The last recorded oracle was a message to the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate.

“Go tell the king, the well-wrought hall has fallen in the dust; Phoebus Apollo no longer has a home or laurel or a murmuring spring. Even the talkative spring has dried up and is no more.”

For further reading:
Broad, William J. The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets. Penguin 2006 or 7 Lots of info about the hallucinogenic gas, as well as the oracle. (Very readable)

Scott, Michael. Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World Princeton Univ Press 2014. (Excellent historical material)

One of the many websites:

Thanks to Pavlos Kavouros and Jennie Frost for help and inspiration.

© Kira Van Deusen 2016

The Oracle of Delphi Athens

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