Prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi
The Oracle of Delphi is located in a privileged location in the natural region of Phocis, isolated, with impressive views, and, consequently, an ideal spiritual environment. The history of the sanctuary is long and mythologically there are many divinities who were named patrons of the place, until two gods predominated: Gaia, the goddess of the earth, also possessor of many other oracles of the ancient world, and Apollo, who, according to the myth, he killed the snake Python, which lived in those places (the snake is also a symbol of the Earth: it may be a very well-spun metaphor for how Apollo "removed" the oracle from Gaea), and established there not only his oracular sanctuary, but a headquarters for the Pythian games, multiple temples to related divinities, and the thesauri, small temples where the "treasures" were preserved, that is, the very numerous offerings that were made there.
Without a doubt the most important characteristic of the Delphic oracle was its method of prophesying. Although in other places in Greece divination by geomancy or oneiromancy was used, here the words came from the mouth of the Pythia, who had her own mantic ritual: she descended in solitude to a sacred space, the adyton (Gr. ἄδυτον, place impenetrable, in the sacred sense) with a staff of laurel and a crown of the leaves of the same tree, consecrated to Apollo. There he drank or bathed in underground springs, according to some Casotis, and according to others, a spring from the Castalia fountain. Down there is where he sat on a tall tripod, whose legs symbolized the past, the present and the future, located over a crack from which the vapors of the earth came out. It is said that he also chewed laurel leaves, the tree sacred to Apollo, and other herbs. After a short period of time, the Pythia would enter a trance, into religious ecstasy, and begin to prophesy, saying unintelligible things that the priests of the temple were in charge of interpreting, giving the answer in verse to the consultants, with whom they used to meet a day before going to the Pythia.
Much has been said about the origin of these vapors: it is known that under Greek territory there are multiple tectonic faults, which the ancients knew and identified, placing their cities and temples on top of them. However, it was not until the beginning of the 21st century when it was openly confirmed that two faults collided exactly under the temple of Apollo in Delphi, in the adyton, which began a geological investigation where dry springs and sediments containing ethane, methane, benzene and ethylene, traces of psychoactive hydrocarbon gases that could have given rise to an anesthetic, hallucinogenic, spasmodic and stimulating state for the Pythia. In fact, in ancient representations of Greek ceramic painting, the Pythia is always presented in a state of relaxation.
Plutarch (ca. 50-120), who was head priest at the Oracle of Delphi, gives us many details about this state, saying that the woman jumped, thrashed, hummed, and salivated. All these effects cease when you stop breathing the gases, but their toxicity is excessively high, and that is why the oracles were spaced out in time. Due to the popularity of the oracle, several Pythias came to exist to be able to carry out this spacing, who were chosen from among the young women of good family, although Diodorus says that a client raped one, and from then on it was older women dressed as maidens who served. to the oracle. When it was not possible to consult a Pythia, answers could be given by priests through divination with colored beans or reading omens. A good way to distance consultations was prior sacrifice, through which, due to the attitude of the animal or the reading of its entrails, the priests could deny a consultation because it was not the right time. Once again it is Plutarch who tells that an insistent client wanted to consult the Pythia, even though the omens were negative, and that poor Pythia, probably due to excessive exposure to the vapors, ended up deranged, hysterical, they had to take her out of there, and he died shortly after.
The oracle of Delphi became the most famous of antiquity, and from the records we have, it seems that every political decision was consulted beforehand. It is possible to think that the oracle, who was also located in one of the best communicated (and therefore informed) areas of Greece, actively took part and influenced all these issues, according to his preference. However, his predictions were always ambiguous.
Herodotus (484-425 BC) tells us several of them, although many mix legend with history:
He confirmed his sovereignty to the legendary legislator Lycurgus of Sparta: You have come to my rich temple, Lycurgus, a man beloved by Zeus and by all who have Olympian homes. I'm hesitant to pronounce you man or god, but I believe you are a god.
King Croesus of Lydia consulted Delphi several times, after having verified that its prophecies were true. To do this, he prepared something strange and incomprehensible, and sent several emissaries to different oracles to see which one was correct in what he was doing. The one from Delphi said: I count the grains of sand on the beach and the dimensions of the sea; I understand the speech of the mute and listen to those who have no voice. The smell of a hard-shelled turtle boiling and bubbling with mutton in a bronze pot has reached my senses: bronze underneath it and bronze covering it.
Indeed, King Croesus had decided to cook a tortoise and a lamb in a bronze cauldron. He became a benefactor and devotee of this oracle and asked him new questions, such as how long his reign would last. Apollo answered: When a mule becomes sovereign king of the Medes, then, delicate Lydian, flee through the stone-strewn Hermos, flee and do not think of standing firm, nor be ashamed of being a coward.
Croesus literally considered that a mule could never be named king, and that his empire would last forever, so his victory against the Medes was assured. A second oracle told him: If you cross the river Halys, you will destroy a great empire. Croesus became emboldened and started war, but lost against Cyrus, fulfilling both oracles: for Cyrus was a "mule", since he was a half-breed of a Median woman and a Persian man; and the great empire that fell was that of Croesus.
We have yet another episode of this king. On this occasion, he wanted to hear his mute son speak, to which the oracle responded:
Lydia for your lineage, king of many, great naive Croesus, do not want to hear in your palace the much desired voice of your son gifted with speech. It is better for you that this be far away, for he will speak for the first time on a day of misfortune.
In fact, when he heard his son for the first time was when he screamed on the day of the fall of Sardis at the hands of the Persians.
Herodotus also tells us a question from the Spartans about the invasion of Arcadia, to which the oracle responded: Arcadia you ask of me? You ask a lot of me. I won't give it to you. There are plenty of acorn-eating men in Arcadia who will stop you. But I do not deny you everything out of envy. I will give you Tegea, percussed by the foot, so that you can dance on it and a beautiful plain so that you can divide it with the rope.
As always, the oracle had a double meaning: the Spartans decided to attack Tegea and lost, and the measuring ropes were the chains imposed on them as slaves.
We have many examples of double meanings and other metaphors, some clearer than others. Pausanias (2nd century) tells us that the Phocaeans consulted the oracle, worried about the invasion of the Thessalians. The answer was: I will send a mortal and an immortal to fight. I will give victory to both, but more to the mortal.
The final interpretation of this oracle is that the Thessalians took the name of the goddess Athena (immortal) as their emblem, while the Phocaeans used that of their patron, the hero Phocus (mortal), and they were the ones who won in the contest. . Pausanias also gives us another example, a response given to the Messenians:
When a goat drinks the raging water of the Nede, I will no longer defend Messenia, for ruin will be near.
The "trick" in this oracle is found in the dialect spoken in Messenia, where the goat could also be the word for the goat-fig plant, a type of fig tree, which was leaning towards the River Nede, its leaves reaching skim the water.
From Plutarch we have the following metaphorical example, in response to the Spartan Lysander: Beware, I advise you, of the rumored hoplite (soldier), and of the insidious dragon, son of the earth, who advances behind him.
The murmuring hoplite is in truth the Haliarto river, whose waters produce a murmur, and the dragon behind him was the dragon drawn on the shield of the enemy who would kill him there.
Among other answers to private questions, such as this one to a search for a partner: From Argos, where the horses graze, take a filly with a dark mane...
We will quote a reply from the oracle to the divination art itself: Many are those who predict with pebbles, but few are fortune tellers.
Other responses are undoubtedly political in nature, as is evident, since all political consultations affected the city of Delphi and the sanctuary, as well as its reputation. In this case, the answers are much clearer, which clearly attests to the possible interests of the oracle, the bribes of the different rulers, or the evidence that Delphi, with its communications network, received from the political forecasts.
Some may be inscribed within the literary environment, such as the consultations that were carried out in the Persian Wars, with the responses to the Athenians being the most famous:
Only a wooden wall will not be captured, a blessing to you and your children, and pray to the winds. They will prove to be powerful allies of Greece.
A storm eliminated a large part of the Persian fleet, while the Athenian fleet was not damaged, and despite being fewer, they managed to win. In this way, the winds helped the Greeks and the fleet of Athenian ships, like a wooden wall, managed to avoid Persian attacks. However, all previous oracles had urged the Greeks to flee.
To Philip II of Macedonia, the oracle recommended: Fight with silver spears and you will win in everything. Such a clear and pragmatic response has been interpreted in relation to the silver offerings and bribes that Philip himself had made.
His son, Alexander the Great, also visited the oracle, and it is said that they refused to give him an answer. Outraged, he entered the adyton and dragged the Pythia outside, who shouted: You are invincible, oh, my son! And those words were what Alejandro took as an answer.
When the oracle of Delphi fell into the hands of the Romans, the truth is that its influence was reduced, being seen more as a Greek folklore tradition than as an indispensable element. However, Cicero says that visits, including political ones, continued to be very frequent. Support for any Roman company blatantly showed Delphi's political support for Rome. However, although the first prophecies towards Nero were positive, the following were not, in which the Pythia warned: Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Come back, matricide! The number 73 indicates the moment of your fall!
It is said that Nero, who had just killed his mother, also killed the Pythia responsible for this oracle, and from then on his relations with Delphi were annulled. Thinking he would live to be 73, it was actually Galba, who was 73 years old, who took his place.
But just as happened, according to legend, with Alexander the Great, denying an answer is not something exclusive to great people. There are several occasions when the Pythia refuses to respond to impious consultants, that is, murderers or criminals. He had already rejected Greek consultants before.
Aelian and Origen tell us that Calonda of Naxos, nicknamed "the raven", had killed the poet Archilochus. Since, therefore, he had killed a servant of the arts, of which Apollo was also patron, he simply said to him: You killed the servant of the muses: leave the temple.
Also, when blood flowed in the temple of Hera in the city of Sybaris, the sybarites went to the Pythia, who surprised them in the oracle by revealing that the goddess was angry about the murder of a cytar player near her temple.
Get away from my tripod; still the blood of your hands, which drips in abundance, separates you from my stony threshold. I will not give you any oracle. You killed the servant of the muses, next to Hera's altar. You will not escape the punishment of the gods (...)
The oracle, in any case, fell into decline. We are first told that oracles in verse stopped being given, moving to prose, and that with Christianity, pagan divination was harshly criticized and the Pythian trance was sold as demonic possession. Only Julian the Apostate (332-363), who tried to resurrect paganism within Christian expansion, consulted the oracle officially in 362, receiving the following response:
Tell the emperor that our sculptured hall is falling into ruins. Phoebus no longer has a roof over his head or a refuge from which to prophesy. The fountain no longer speaks, the stream has dried up, the one that had so much to say.
Although for many it was a request for help, in which the emperor wanted to embark, trying to rebuild the place, practically abandoned, it is curious to note that, perhaps, given the geological investigations, the fact that the spring was also literal and the crack disappeared, as a result of various earthquakes.
This did not detract from the charm of the archaeological enclave, which after romanticism, independence and the excavations of the 20th century has been recovering its former appeal for visitors. Lord Byron spoke in his poems of the stillness that permeated the sanctuary. The poet Ángelos Sikelianós (1884 -1951) tried to recover the Delphic games, the artistic competitions (theater, poetry) and even the religious feeling of the place, in a universalist idea, what is known as The Delphic Idea; but, unfortunately, after three years of much economic, social and political dispute, the Delphic Idea ended.
Although for many the Oracle of Delphi continues to be a magical and inspiring place, his supposed words in the year 393, with Constantine as emperor, are cited as the last words of the oracle: Everything is over. Although everything points to a romanticization of the end of paganism and the victory of Christianity, there are those who remember that, five years later, Rome would fall into the hands of the Visigoths, and the classical world as it was known would disappear forever.
Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - email@example.com
- Benavente, M. (Trad.), Treinta y seis oráculos de Apolo Delfio. Suplemento de Estudios Clásicos, número 1, Madrid 1996.
- Plutarco. Sobre los oráculos. (José de Olañeta ed.) Colección El Barquero, 2007
- Scott, M. Delfos: historia del centro del mundo antiguo. Ariel, 2015.