National Geographic : 1944 Mar
The Famous Oracle at Delphi OF ALL the oracles of the ancient world the most important by far was that at Delphi. Here were the richest offerings and dedications. The Greek states from all over the Mediterranean sent their embassies to consult the Pythian Apollo, who spoke through his priestess and prophetess, the Pythia. Like all ancient mysteries, the secrets of the oracle were well guarded; so much so that when the temple where the oracle stood was excavated, every part of the adyton, the holy of holies inside the cella of the temple, was found to have been ripped out. From various literary sources, from a few stones, and from sculptures and vase paintings, how ever, we may reconstruct the scene to some degree. Within the temple was a small stone chamber, partly or wholly below the floor level. Here stood a huge bronze tripod with the omphalos, which marked the navel or center of the world, in front of it. By the omphalos stood two golden eagles representing the birds which Zeus had released, one on the east, the other on the west, in order to determine by their meet ing place the center of the earth. On this omphalos were laid sacred fillets or bands of wool. By the tripod stood bronze laurel branches which the Pythia is said sometimes to have shaken in her prophetic frenzy. No one could un derstand her incoherent ravings, but the priests professed to do so and provided for the ambassadors who came to consult the oracle a written form of the prophecy. There was always, however, enough doubt as to the exact meaning of the prophecy so that the oracle could never be called wrong. The suggestion has been made that the Pythia, chosen at first from among the young women of Delphi, would go down into a chamber under the adyton, light a fire of herbs whose smoke had a narcotic effect on her, and then reappear and mount the tripod. In the omphalos was a hole through which smoke or vapor could rise into the room and increase the mystic effect. Somewhere in the temple, very possibly in the adyton, was a golden statue of Apollo, holding in one hand a flat bowl for libations and in the other a bow. Helmets were hung on the walls as votive offerings. The influence of the oracle was tre mendous, and its pronouncements are legion. Sometimes it seems that the oracle was influenced, as in the case of the Spartan delegation which was sent to inquire as to the legitimacy of Demaratus in connection with his kingship. Cleomenes, to be revenged on Dem aratus, gained the help of a certain Cobon who persuaded the proph etess Perialla to say what they de sired, and she gave judgment that Demaratus was not the son of his sup posed father. As a result, he was de posed from his kingship. Herodotus goes on to say, however, that at a later day these doings were discovered, Cobon was banished from Delphi, and Perialla was deprived of her hon orable office. After the Persian Wars, a scandal ous attempt to kidnap the priestess resulted in her always being selected from among the older women. In general, the woman who served as the Pythia was not required to have any training or education, but acted en tirely on the instructions of the priests who managed the oracle.