What’s in a name: Delphi and the Oracle.

The view from Delphi.

The view from Delphi in the early morning light.

Due to a certain new Harry Potter publication (yay), there is suddenly a big interest in one of its many characters – Delphi. Although I promise this blog is spoiler-free for those of you who have yet to see the play or read the script, I’ve always been really interested in J.K. Rowling’s very deliberate name choices throughout her magical book series. Delphi sparked my interest immediately – I’ve been there and actually studied it quite intensively, and that background knowledge, for me, made the character even more interesting as I could see so many links.

Delphi (derived from the Greek word for womb), an ancient Greek city you can still visit today, was famous throughout Europe. The reason? It housed the Temple of Apollo, and within it, the mystical and powerful Oracle of Delphi. The chosen woman, called the Pythia, was so influential she could start wars. Her influence was a consequence of her prophecies, which were believed to be the god Apollo speaking directly through her.

What remains of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi.

What remains of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi. This is where people would come to see the famous Oracle.

The Oracle at Delphi was consulted on both state and personal matters alike, but one of her most famous prophecies was in response to Croesus, the King of Lydia. The King, having tested all the oracles in the ancient world, had deemed the Delphi Oracle to be the most accurate. Based on that, he asked the Pythia if he should make war on the Persians. The Pythia replied in her usual open-for-interpretation way: if Croesus did make war, he would destroy a mighty empire. Filled with newfound confidence, Croesus went to war, and a mighty empire was indeed destroyed; his own.

Although there is some debate as to how the Pythia became ‘possessed’, the general consensus amongst historians is that she was intoxicated. There are several suggestions over how, but the most popular one is that the Pythia would inhale gases (more specifically, Ethylene which in small doses can produce a trance-like effect) that rose from a crack in the ground above two crossing fault lines. The theory is not without its controversies, but unfortunately there is little primary evidence on the matter.

The remains of the Treasury at Delphi.

The remains of the Treasury at Delphi.

The Pythia was a role, rather than a specific person, and was usually an older woman (one who could no longer birth children), whom had conducted a blameless life. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, she was not picked from one of the elite, nor even educated beyond the norm, apart from her training on the tradition and rituals of her role.

There were many Oracles throughout the ancient world, yet despite Delphi’s authority fluctuating over time, overall Delphi is considered to have been the most famous. The gifts and money that the Pythia garnered over time from both offerings and wars fought in her (and Apollo’s) name meant a spectacular temple was built up in the mountainside city. The Sacred Way – the pathway that led from the entrance of the sanctuary to the temple – would have been an avenue of marble monuments. The temple itself had incredible sculptures and paintings, and was spectacular – especially after most of the building work was completed during the sixth and fifth century BC.

The Delphi Theatre.

The Delphi Theatre.

Although now in ruins, you can still go and see the ancient site of Delphi. There is much more to it than just the temple – you can see the where the Pythian Games were held (one of the precursors to the modern Olympics), the theatre, the Tholos and much, much more. There is also an archaeological museum on the edge of the modern day village, near the bottom of the archaeological site. There you can find golden treasures, statues and other remains from the historic Delphi.

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