Delphi (pron.: /ˈdɛlfaɪ/ or /ˈdɛlfi/; Greek: Δελφοί, [ðelˈfi]) is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.
In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god Apollo after he slew the Python, a dragon who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. Python (derived from the verb pythein, "to rot") is claimed by some to be the original name of the site in recognition of the Python that Apollo defeated. The Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo recalled that the ancient name of this site had been Krisa.
Apollo's sacred precinct in Delphi was a panhellenic sanctuary, where every four years, starting in 776 BC athletes from all over the Greek world competed in the Pythian Games, one of the four panhellenic (or stephanitic) games, precursors of the Modern Olympics. The victors at Delphi were presented with a laurel crown (stephanos) which was ceremonially cut from a tree by a boy who re-enacted the slaying of the Python. Delphi was set apart from the other games sites because it hosted the mousikos agon, musical competitions.
These Pythian Games rank second among the four stephanitic games chronologically and based on importance. These games, though, were different from the games at Olympia in that they were not of such vast importance to the city of Delphi as the games at Olympia were to the area surrounding Olympia. Delphi would have been a renowned city whether or not it hosted these games; it had other attractions that led to it being labeled the "omphalos" (navel) of the earth, in other words, the center of the world.
In the inner hestia ("hearth") of the Temple of Apollo, an eternal flame burned. After the battle of Plataea, the Greek cities extinguished their fires and brought new fire from the hearth of Greece, at Delphi; in the foundation stories of several Greek colonies, the founding colonists were first dedicated at Delphi.
The name Delphoi comes from the same root as δελφύς delphys, "womb" and may indicate archaic veneration of Gaia, Grandmother Earth, and the Earth Goddess at the site. Apollo is connected with the site by his epithet Δελφίνιος Delphinios, "the Delphinian". The epithet is connected with dolphins (Greek δελφίς,-ῖνος) in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (line 400), recounting the legend of how Apollo first came to Delphi in the shape of a dolphin, carrying Cretan priests on his back. The Homeric name of the oracle is Pytho (Πυθώ).
Another legend held that Apollo walked to Delphi from the north and stopped at Tempe, a city in Thessaly, to pick laurel (also known as bay tree) which he considered to be a sacred plant. In commemoration of this legend, the winners at the Pythian Games received a wreath of laurel picked in the Temple.
Delphi became the site of a major temple to Phoebus Apollo, as well as the Pythian Games and the famous prehistoric oracle. Even in Roman times, hundreds of votive statues remained, described by Pliny the Younger and seen by Pausanias.
Carved into the temple were three phrases: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seautón = "know thyself") and μηδέν άγαν (mēdén ágan = "nothing in excess"), and Ἑγγύα πάρα δ'ἄτη (eggýa pára d'atē = "make a pledge and mischief is nigh"), In ancient times, the origin of these phrases was attributed to one or more of the Seven Sages of Greece,
Additionally, according to Plutarch's essay on the meaning of the "E at Delphi"—the only literary source for the inscription---there was also inscribed at the temple a large letter E. Among other things epsilon signifies the number 5.
However, ancient as well as modern scholars have doubted the legitimacy of such inscriptions. According to one pair of scholars, "The actual authorship of the three maxims set up on the Delphian temple may be left uncertain. Most likely they were popular proverbs, which tended later to be attributed to particular sages."
According to the Homeric-hymn to the Pythian, Apollo shot his first arrow as an infant which effectively slew the serpent Pytho, the son of Gaia, who guarded the spot. To atone the murder of Gaia's son, Apollo was forced to fly and spend eight years in menial service before he could return forgiven. A festival, the Septerla, was held every year, at which the whole story was represented: the slaying of the serpent, and the flight, atonement, and return of the god.
The Pythian Games took place every four years to commemorate Apollo's victory. Another regular Delphi festival was the "Theophania" (Θεοφάνεια), an annual festival in spring celebrating the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Hyperborea. The culmination of the festival was a display of an image of the gods, usually hidden in the sanctuary, to worshippers.
The "Theoxenia" was held each summer, centred on a feast for "gods and ambassadors from other states". Myths indicate that Apollo killed the chthonic serpent Python, Pythia in older myths, but according to some later accounts his wife, Pythia, who lived beside the Castalian Spring. According to some because Python had attempted to rape Leto while she was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis. The bodies of the pair were draped around his Rod, which with the wings created the caduceus symbolic of the god.
This spring flowed toward the temple but disappeared beneath, creating a cleft which emitted vapors that caused the Oracle at Delphi to give her prophecies. Apollo killed Python but had to be punished for it, since she was a child of Gaia. The shrine dedicated to Apollo was originally dedicated to Gaia and shared with Poseidon. The name Pythia remained as the title of the Delphic Oracle.
Erwin Rohde wrote that the Python was an earth spirit, who was conquered by Apollo, and buried under the Omphalos, and that it is a case of one deity setting up a temple on the grave of another. Another view holds that Apollo was a fairly recent addition to the Greek pantheon coming originally from Lydia. The Etruscans coming from northern Anatolia also worshipped Apollo, and it may be that he was originally identical with Mesopotamian Aplu, an Akkadian title meaning "son", originally given to the plague God Nergal, son of Enlil. Apollo Smintheus (Greek Απόλλων Σμινθεύς), the mouse killer eliminates mice, a primary cause of disease, hence he promotes preventive medicine.
Oracle of Pythia
Dedication to Apollo
Delphi is perhaps best known for the oracle at the sanctuary that was dedicated to Apollo during the classical period. According to Aeschylus in the prologue of the Eumenides, it had origins in prehistoric times and the worship of Gaia. In the last quarter of the 8th century BC there is a steady increase in artifacts found at the settlement site in Delphi, which was a new, post-Mycenaean settlement of the late 9th century. Pottery and bronze work as well as tripod dedications continue in a steady stream, in comparison to Olympia. Neither the range of objects nor the presence of prestigious dedications proves that Delphi was a focus of attention for a wide range of worshippers, but the large quantity of high value goods, found in no other mainland sanctuary, certainly encourages that view.
Apollo spoke through his oracle: the sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia; she had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. It has been postulated that a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, came out of this opening, though this theory remains debatable.
While in a trance the Pythia "raved" – probably a form of ecstatic speech – and her ravings were "translated" by the priests of the temple into elegant hexameters. People consulted the Delphic oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. The oracle could not be consulted during the winter months, for this was traditionally the time when Apollo would live among the Hyperboreans. Dionysus would inhabit the temple during his absence.
H.W. Parke writes that the foundation of Delphi and its oracle took place before recorded history and its origins are obscure, but dating to the worship of the Titan, Gaia.
The Oracle exerted considerable influence throughout the Greek world, and she was consulted before all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, and so forth. She also was respected by the semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt. The oracle was also known to the early Romans. Rome's seventh and last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, after witnessing a snake near his palace, sent a delegation including two of his sons to consult the oracle.
For a list of some of the most noted oracular pronouncements of the Pythia, go to Famous Oracular Statements from Delphi.
The Oracle benefited from the Macedonian Kings. Later it was placed under the protection of the Aetolians. After a brief period the influence of the Romans started to emerge, and they protected the Oracle from a dangerous barbarian invasion in 109 BC and 105 BC. A major reorganization was initiated, but was interrupted by the Mithridatic Wars and the wars of Sulla who took many rich offerings from the Oracle.
Invading barbarian invasions burned the Temple, which had been severely damaged by an earthquake in 83 BC. Thus the Oracle fell in decay and the surrounding area became impoverished. The sparse local population led to difficulties in filling the posts required. The Oracle's credibility waned due to doubtful predictions.
When Nero came to Greece in AD 66, he took away over 500 of the best statues from Delphi to Rome. Subsequent Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty contributed significantly towards its restoration. Hadrian offered complete autonomy. Also Plutarch was a significant factor by his presence as a chief priest.
However, barbarian raids during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and removal of statues and other riches (in effect looting) by Constantine I caused it to decay. The short reign of Julian could not improve matters. The Oracle continued until it was closed by emperor Theodosius I in AD 395. The site was abandoned for almost 100 years, until Christians started to settle permanently in the area: they established the small town of Kastri in about AD 600.