All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in March 2021.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page revised in March 2021.
(January 1676) Being now well assured, that Salona was not Delphos, but the Amphissa of old; we enquired of our Host, whether there were no antient Ruins of a Town in our way between this and Livadia? He told us, That there were many at Castri, a Village about mid-way. (..) We soon began to mount the Ridges of the Mountain Parnassus, by a very bad rough way, South-Eastwards, until we arrived, in four or five Hours time, at Castri; which we no sooner approached, but we concluded, that it was undoubtedly the Remainder of the famous City of Delphos. (..) But, that no Doubt might remain, but this was Delphus, we found several Inscriptions bearing that Name in antient Greek Characters: of which a Fragment, I brought with me, and is now at Oxford.. (..) I need not tell you what this Place was in antient times: All the World knows, how famous Delphos hath been for the Oracle of Apollo there, consulted for so many Ages together. But its antient Glory is now vanished; and it remains Great, at present, only in the Writings of the Antients.
A journey into Greece by George Wheler, Esq., in company of Dr. Spon of Lyons - 1682
View of Fedriades and Castalia above the ruins of Delphi on the site of the former village of Castri
The high Cliffs in sight above it from the Town, seem to end in two points; whence I judged it was call'd of old, Biceps Parnassus: For it hath many more tops, and much higher than these, being a very great Mountain: But these two tops seen from Delphos, hide all the rest. Between which the Water falls, in great abundance, after Rain or Snow, and hath worn them almost asunder. There is also a Fountain, with a very plentiful Source of Water, continually issuing out from among those Rocks, just under that Separation: which by the Marble Steps descending to it, and the Niches made in the Rock for Statues above it, should be the Fountain Castalia, that so inspired the antient Poets. Its Stream falleth down Southward a very deep, and narrow Precipice. (..) The Water of Castalia is very good and cool; fit to quench the Thirst of those hot-headed Poets, who, in their Bacchanals, spare neither God nor Man; and to whom nothing is so sacred, but they will venture to profane it. Wheler
The city of Delphi was seated on a high rock, with the oracle above it. (..) Castalia is on the right hand as you ascend to it, the water coming from on high and crossing the road; a steep precipice, above which the mountain still rises immensely, continuing on in that direction. (..) The natural strength of the place excited admiration as much as the majesty of the god.
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
In the very distant past, before Greek civilization developed, shepherds noticed a crack in the rocks above the River Pleistos valley, which they crossed to bring their flocks to the summer pastures of Mount Parnassus; a spring (Castalia) came out of the crack; the shepherds felt the site was evocative of female fertility, also because of the reddish colour of the rocks (Fedriades) on the sides of the fissure. Delphi, at the beginning just a small terrace at the foot of the mountain, most likely a resting point for the shepherds, became a site where Mother Earth (Gaia) was worshipped: perhaps the actual presence of snakes led to the belief that Python, a gigantic snake, protected the goddess. The religions of many past civilizations were greatly interested in good and ill omens and prediction of the future, e.g. at Dodoni, so the worship of Gaia was associated with an oracle; the number of very ancient artefacts found at Delphi show that it attracted many devotees. At that time the oracle was called Putho.
The move from the worship of Gaia to that of Zeus and the other gods of Greek mythology is usually
associated with the invasion of southern and central Greece by the Dorians; the myth explaining the change is regarded as a metaphor for how the newcomers imposed their rule.
The Greek god Apollo had, among other names, that of Smintheus (Mouse) and he was associated with the spreading and curing of disease: mice and snakes being enemies it is no surprise that Apollo's first act was to kill Python and impose his own cult on Delphi and Mount Parnassus, which he made the residence of the Muses (Apollon Musagetes).
The myth does not hint only at fighting and conquering; it also speaks about merging of cultures. Apollo changed the name of the site from Putho to Delphi (a reference to the dolphin which carried him there), but the tradition of the oracle continued and Apollo spoke through the words of a woman who retained the old name: Pythia or Pythoness; in addition he had many peaceful attributes: he was the god of music and poetry and presided (through his son Asclepius) over medicine: in this last aspect the snake acquired again a positive role (it is now a symbol for physicians across the globe). Every four years music and poetry competitions were held to celebrate Apollo: later on their scope was expanded to include athletic games and chariot races.
As a consequence of the change in worship, the shrine of Delphi was relocated on the left Fedriade, and the old one became the starting point for the processions going to the new site: today it is called Marmaria (marbles) and there are ruins of two temples dedicated to Athena: between them archaeologists have identified a circular temple which is assumed to have been dedicated to Gaia.
Portico at the agora (market) at the entrance of Delphi
February 1806. The Delphic sanctuary is so
encumbered by modern habitations, that nothing
short of their removal, and the entire clearing of
the site from the accumulated rubbish of ages
can supply satisfactory particulars of the design
or architecture of the temple and its adjunct
William Martin Leake - Travels in northern Greece - 1835
Modern visitors arriving along the Holy Road from the Roman Market up to the Stadium can perceive the same feeling as the person who visited the area in the antiquity.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Delphi which in 1987 was added to the World Heritage List.
Proper archaeological excavations began in the late XIXth century after the inhabitants of Castri were relocated outside the archaeological area. Evidence of a market was identified at its western end, the arrival point for pilgrims from Kira, the harbour of Delphi on the Gulf of Corinth. The northern portico of the market was turned into a Christian church; the wall is an example of opus mixtum, a construction technique of the Late Empire, and archaeologists unearthed several plutei, Christian marble screens.
The gymnasium: lower terrace with a small circular pool and a covered portico
Continuing yet upon a Descent, we came to a Monastery, called Panagia, its Church being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It is situated upon the Brink of the Mountain, upon ground, held up by antient, strong Walls of hewn Stone. There we saw several Capitals, and Fusts, of Corinthian Pillars, and other Fragments of Antiquity; among which three or four Inscriptions, in and about the Church, and the Name of Delphos. (..) We believed, that this Place was where the Gymnasium, or Schools stood, from Pausanias his words: Those, saith he, that go up from the Gymnasium to the Temple, have the Fountain Castalia on the right hand. But we, bending our Steps contrary to his, ought to leave it, as we did, on our left hand. Wheler
The monastery is on the site of the Gymnasium. Strong terrace walls and other traces of a large edifice remain. (..) We found also several architectural fragments. Chandler
Wheler, Chandler, Leake and other early travellers made many references to Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer of the IInd second century AD, who wrote a Description of Greece which provided crucial information for identifying the site of the ancient monuments of Delphi, even though a village covered them. The processions of worshippers going to the Temple to Apollo went through a gymnasium where the athletes and more in general the youth of Delphi exercised; it was built on two long and narrow terraces on the flank of the mountain: in the upper terrace a xystos (covered portico) allowed training during winter or in rainy weather; the lower terrace had a palaestra (wrestling school) and a small circular pool.
Inscriptions: (upper left corner - 1) Treasury of Argos; (upper right corner - 2) wall supporting the Temple to Apollo; (lower left corner - 3) near the main gate; (lower right corner -4) near the Temple to Apollo
On the south side of the temple are many inscriptions; all nearly of
the same tenor, and very difficult to copy. They register the
purchase of slaves, who had entrusted the price of their freedom
to the god. Chandler
The history of ancient Delphi spans more than a thousand years and the archaeological site retains many interesting inscriptions: (1) is a very old inscription celebrating the kings of Argo: it shows an example of "bustrophedic" writing (one line is left to right and the next right to left - see another one at Gortyn); (2) a long inscription characterized by a very small print lists more than 800 cases of manumissions (releases from slavery): similar inscriptions have been found in other archaeological sites, such as Butrint; (3) is an inscription celebrating Emperor Trajan: the Oracle was asked for predictions by several Roman Emperors (among them Nero who misinterpreted the utterance of the Delphic Oracle "Beware the age of seventy-three": he thought it meant he would live until that age, actually it was the age of Galba, one of his generals); (4) is a rare inscription in Latin: the full text is M(arcum) Minucium Q(uinti) f(ilium) imperatorem Galleis Scordisteis et Besseis and it does not mean that Marcus Minucius was an emperor because during the Roman Republic imperator was a title roughly equivalent to commander; actually he was proconsul of Macedonia in 106 BC.
(left) Treasury of Athens; (centre) the sacred street leading to the Temple to Apollo; (right) a pillar which supported a statue of Prusias, king of Bithynia
The only buildings within the sacred peribolus,
besides the temple, were a portico built by the Athenians, and eight treasuries, similar to those at Olympia where ten of these constructions stood upon a basement. (..) One of
the thesauri at Olympia was so large as to contain a colossal statue; at Delphi none seem to have
been of such dimensions, but were intended only
for the smaller and more valuable offerings. Leake
Seventeen Greek towns built treasuries to thank the Oracle for its good advice and to commemorate their victories or other achievements; they were sort of small temples having more or less the same structure and size; the Treasury of Athens was the only one built using Pentelic marble, so archaeologists have been able to reconstruct it. Also the monarchs of the countries next to the Greek world sent statues and other works of art to Delphi.
Overall view of the Temple to Apollo
Mounting a little higher, by a way cut out of the Rocks, we entred through a Passage, from whence we saw the Town of Castri hard by; and descending thence a little further, we went into a Church on the right hand, called St Helias. This seems to be the Place most likely for the Temple to Apollo to have been situated in; although now no Remains of it are to be found: only Pausanias saith, That it was in the upper Part of the City. It is true, there is a Rock yet higher, but there is no room for such a Temple to be built there; (..) but where this Church is built, the Ground lieth higher than the rest, and square, having the Foundations of a Wall, built of hewn Stone, and towards the Descent of the Hill supported by Buttrices. Wheler
Delphi was conveniently situated for the conflux of votaries, lying in the centre of Greece, and, as was then imagined, of the Universe. The god prospered in his business. His servants and priests feasted on the numerous victims, which were sacrificed to him; and the riches of his temple were proverbial even before the war of Troy. (..) Pausanias has described it. (..) The village consists of a few poor cottages of Albanians covering the site of the temple and oracle. Chandler
Temple to Apollo: eastern front (also in the image used as background for this page)
The Oracle was located inside the Temple to Apollo: the ruins belong to a temple built in the IVth century BC: the columns were made of tufa and then covered with plaster: its length is slightly shorter than the Parthenon of Athens while its width is much narrower:
this very long shape is due to a crypt behind the cell of the god: it was an adyton, an area to which access was not allowed and the site where Pythia prophesied.
The underground chamber where she stood was small and filled with smoke: she chewed leaves of laurel, the aromatic shrub sacred to Apollo.
A description by Heraclitus of a Sybil's prophecy is most likely applicable to Pythia too: The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.
The words of Pythia (or rather the sounds she made) were interpreted by priests who only could hear them: the outcome of this process was often a carefully worded sentence having different meanings; Croesus, king of Lydia decided to wage war on the Persian Empire on the assumption that the Oracle was advising him to do so: he lost his own kingdom; in hindsight the sentence could also be interpreted as a warning not to wage war. Alexander the Great was so dissatisfied with a vague statement about the campaign he was about to start, that in a fit of temper he entered the adyton and dragged Pythia by the hair out of her sanctuary until he obtained the favourable advice he wanted.
The Stadium and its starting line, you may wish to see that of Olympia
A little further on the left hand of the way, is the Place, where a Stadium hath been; and some of the Degrees yet remain of white Marble. It is much less, than that of Athens; although both had the same Founder, viz. Herodes Atticus. The Stadium hath the high Rock I last spake of, at one Corner West of it; towards which are several Grottoes and Caves hewn out of it, I suppose, for Sepulchers, as well as those we saw, coming into the Town. Wheler
Higher up than the village is the hollow of the Stadium, in which were some seats and scattered fragments. Chandler
Athletic games took place on the plain near Kira, the harbour of Delphi: this until the IIIrd century BC when a stadium was built on an artificial terrace well above the theatre. The audience sat on the sloping ground at the sides of the track: in the IInd century AD Herodes Atticus funded a major upgrading of the stadium.
There is a
great probability that the theatre occupied the
ground immediately below the stadium, adjacent
to the village on the western side, comprehending
perhaps a part of its site, as well because the
words of Pausanias tend to that conclusion, as
because among the Greeks the theatre and stadium were commonly contiguous to, or not very
distant from each other. Leake
The contests of music and poetry took place in a theatre above the Temple to Apollo: from the highest seats the audience enjoyed a striking view on the whole town and on the valley beyond it. The orchestra was reshaped by the Romans.
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Asklepion of Kos
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina
Move to page two to see Kira, the harbour for the pilgrims and the works of art found at Delphi.