History of religion

Religions of Antiquity V: The Oracle at Delphi

(Published in GralsWelt 38/2006)

Those who think ahead or plan do so because of a future they hope for. Out of that desire, asking about the future for foreknowledge has become a practice almost as old as humanity. Here are some practical reasons:

"On sacred tripod also sits the prophetess and sings to the Hellenic people the sublime sayings of Phoibos".
Euripides (480-406 BC)

* For hunters and gatherers it was crucial to find enough game, the whereabouts and trails of which were often unpredictable. Before storms or even enemies, you had to be able to get to safety in good time.

* For nomads, survival depends on the fact that sufficient fodder has grown back for the herds, that known sources have not dried up, and that the herds do not fall into sudden weather conditions.

* A farmer has to calculate with the weather, which is only predictable to a very limited extent, and storms, game or sudden pest infestation can ruin all efforts.

* Ancient cities and states had their seers, priests, fortune tellers who had to be consulted about important decisions; if only to give the people the feeling that those in power are being guided by higher insights.

* Even Christianity, which condemned oracles and idolatrous cults as lies and deceit, has not been able to make popular forecasting and fortune-telling methods such as astrology, biblical engraving, palmistry or card reading disappear entirely.

* Even today one asks how ever and about the future. Because economic and political decisions can have dire consequences if future developments are incorrectly assessed, etc. etc. The future can also look fatal if unreasonable decisions are made in the present, which are also a form of predetermination.

The Pythia - a trance medium
In the second millennium BC, goatherds reportedly observed strange, crazy behavior in animals that came near a certain point in the Parnassus Mountains. The animals acted like they were drunk. People who went there also experienced changes in consciousness. Then this mysterious place was considered a natural sanctuary, presumably dedicated to the earth mother Gaia, and especially visited by women.
In the first millennium, Apollo became the lord of this place of worship. According to legend, he had to kill a female dragon, called a python. The seer, named after the dragon Pythia, which was slain by Apollo, prophesied in the sanctuary, which was growing in importance and size. Plutarch (around 50 - 125 AD), himself a priest of the sanctuary, reports:
"Because the space in which you let those who question God sit down is filled with a breath - similar to the scents that send the finest perfumes and that flow from the holy of holies like a spring." (5)
This report of the Plutarch dismissed as propaganda until the American geologist Jelle de Boer was able to show that there are still springs in Parnassus today from which natural gases, e.g. methane, gush. According to the latest research, it is quite likely that a source in the temple at Delphi once allowed ethylene to flow out, among other things. Ethylene is an anesthetic gas that was still used at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the stone slab was found on which the tripod of the Pythia probably stood. In this plate there is a hole through which the natural gas escaping from an underground spring could flow into a beehive-shaped funnel (the "omphalos"). Finally, this narcotic escaped into the mysterious room, forbidden for the profane, in which the Pythia was put into a sometimes uncontrollable trance.
In winter, the oracle had to be silent for four months because the frozen spring did not release any gas. At this time, Dionysian festivals took place (5).

In the past, it was shamans, magicians, clairvoyants, oracle priests, astrologers whose prospects were listened to, today it is tax appraisers, expert committees, stock market gurus, trend scouts or futurologists who should explore the world of tomorrow so that we can prepare for it can. The prediction methods have changed, the desire to know the future has remained.

However, there is a major difference between antiquity and modern times: The ancient seers should "Will of the Gods" explore. In the language of esotericism one could say that they were looking for connections to (higher) natural or spiritual beings and were ready to listen to their advice. We, on the other hand, rely on observations, on measured data that are extrapolated into the future.

The chaos theory actually shows that the future is open and cannot be clearly foreseen with scientific methods, if only because it is, among other things, supported by the unpredictable behavior of many individuals.

And the future prognoses themselves can influence the behavior of many people, so that “self-fulfilling prophecies” or “self-destroying prophecies” arise. But none of this prevents individuals or organizations from repeatedly asking the question of the future and - at times with considerable effort - from trying to decipher what cannot actually be unveiled.

The question remains whether this works better with modern scientific approaches than with the methods of antiquity; whether the extrapolation of material trends continues as a transcendent vision of the future.

Since around 800 BC. A sanctuary dedicated to the god Apollo was built in a privileged location on a mountain slope, on the site of an older cult site: Delphi. According to Greek belief, it was the center of the world and also became the location of the Pythian Games, comparable to the Olympic Games, but with the special feature that in addition to athletic competitions, musical competitions also took place in Delphi.

The best known was the oracle of Delphi, which was in the highest esteem for centuries, so that Delphi acquired central importance for the entire Greek population. The extensive cult site, with temples, amphitheater, treasure houses, gymnasium, etc., had its greatest period from around 550 to 480 BC, but building activity continued until around 200 BC. Chr. At; later it was mainly about the preservation of the stock.

The mantic, the art of fortune telling, was widespread in ancient Greece, and the methods of questioning the future were varied: from the flight of birds to inspecting the viscera, from observing celestial phenomena to throwing lots.

In Delphi it was a priestess of Apollo who, as a language medium in a trance, answered questions and proclaimed the will of the god who supposedly spoke directly from her. Mostly they were simple questions that were answered with “yes” or “no”. The unclear words of the Pythia, today often referred to as "stammering", required the interpretation by priests (see box "The Battle of Salamis"). The longer, even ambiguous oracle sayings handed down by ancient authors are for the most part not considered by modern historians to be authentic.

For those seeking advice, going to Pythia, the seer in the service of Apollo, was a kind of pilgrimage to a sacred place that required preparation and internalization. The seeker had to make sacrifices and donations to the temple before asking his questions.

If the predictions were fulfilled, and if the believer had a profit as a result, a further donation was expected, which should comprise ten percent of his profit. In this way, after a war was won, a considerable part of the booty flowed to Delphi, which kept an important treasure.

In the temple of Apollon, the center of the cultic area, the Pythia sat on a tripod, the three legs of which symbolized the past, present and future, sought transcendent connections and conveyed the divine prophecies. Narcotic vapors presumably escaped from the floor and the chewing of bay leaves (a branch of laurel is the badge of Apollo, the Lord of the Oracle) is said to have helped her inspiration. Usually the god could only be asked once a month (on the 7th day).

The questions of Croesus (Kroisos)
The best known is probably the story (the authenticity of which was already doubted in antiquity) of King Croesus, which ancient authors like Herodotus and Aristotle to report. Croesus was concerned about the growing power of his eastern neighbors, the Persians.
To be on the safe side, he first sent messengers to various oracles (e.g. Didyma, Dodona, the Siwa oasis) and had his ambassadors inquire about what on the hundredth day after their departure Croesus just doing.
The answers given to Croesus in the sealed envelope were unsatisfactory, with one exception. The Pythia at Delphi had replied:
"I know the number of grains of sand and the mass of the sea,
I hear even the dumb, and I hear those who do not speak;
I became aware of the scent of the turtle, the armored animal,
Which is cooked in an iron cauldron, and pieces of lamb.
Ore is placed underneath, and ore will rest on the cauldron. "
Indeed had Croesus a turtle and a lamb slaughtered and cooked in a bronze cauldron with a lid.
Croesus was now convinced of the wisdom of Pythia and dared to ask the decisive question whether he should go to war against the Persians. The Pythia replied:
"Kroisos will, crossing the Halys, destroy a great empire."
Croesus dared to go to war, lost and was captured. (546 BC). The Pythia, who had made further predictions to Croesus, which were surprisingly fulfilled, insisted on the correctness of their prophecy, because Croesus had destroyed a great empire, albeit his own. (2, p. 41).

The traditional sayings of the Pythia, which were once known as "Words of the God Apollo" were valid and received appropriate attention. The majority of the sayings were apparently correct or helped the person seeking advice; there is no other explanation for the oracle's high reputation, which has persisted for centuries, far beyond the Greek-speaking area.

Enlightened historians believe that it was not the clairvoyant Pythia (mostly a simple, middle-aged woman committed to a chaste life) who received the answers, but that a clever, well-informed priesthood knew how to give skilful, often politically motivated pointers, which are in always justify their ambiguity afterwards. The Delphic priesthood, who researched the latest developments in important capitals, is even trusted to perform a spy service. The prophecies are said not to have remained unaffected by the rulers either, perhaps even to have been bought. There are parallels to modern “futurologists”. But all of this can be proven as little as the connection between Pythia and the god Apollo, which even “enlightened” Greeks hardly doubted.

For Socrates (around 470-399 BC) the statement of the Pythia that "no one is wiser than Socrates " determining for his life; he tried to refute the god by questioning the wisdom of his fellow citizens. He made himself thoroughly unpopular when he exposed many of his contemporaries who were considered clever.

The advice of the Delphic Oracle was also sought when a Greek city wanted to adopt a new constitution, plan reforms, or consider establishing new ones. Delphi had a considerable influence on the cities and especially on emigration, which took place between 750 and 530 BC. Led to the establishment of numerous Greek settlements on the Mediterranean coasts. In individual cases, a colony is said to have arisen directly on the basis of instructions from Delphi, as reported by the founding of Kyrenes. (2, p. 31).

The battle at Salamis
In one case of great historical importance, the Delphic Oracle played an important role.
In 480 BC. a huge army of the Persians invaded Greece, by sea and on land, to avenge the shameful Persian defeat at the first Persian expedition (490 BC). The end of Greek freedom seemed near. A sacrificial death of 300 Spartans and 5,600 other Greeks on the Thermophylene Pass could only stop the Persian advance briefly, and Athens seemed lost.
The hastily questioned Pythia prophesied "Rivers of blood, Athens in ruins, the destruction of many temples", and advised to flee (5). The terrified Athenians pressed for a second prophecy, in which, in dark terms,wooden walls " and the "Divine salamis" was spoken. Themistocles (525-460), the great general of Athens, interpreted the “wooden walls” as ships and persuaded his fellow citizens not to flee abroad but to fight. In fact, with the help of a ruse, the Persian fleet was defeated at Salamis.
In this historically well-documented case, historians believe less in the power of Apollo's prophecy than in agreements between Themistocles and the Delphic priesthood.

Delphi survived the collapse of the Greek states and was spared the Celtic invasion. The Roman general Sulla however, 87 BC was frightened. BC did not return before the pillage of the temple treasures. The Romans had their own state oracles, for example the Sibylline Books. But if they didn't know what to do next, they turned to Delphi again. So the reputation of the Pythia was maintained until well after the turn of the ages, and Roman emperors also asked for advice there.

Even Christians, the staunch opponents of all fortune-telling, took the oracle seriously and spread an oracle, the Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) is said to have received in the year 12:

A Hebrew boy greater than all gods commands me
To leave this house to return to Hades.
So leave our altars in silence."(2 p. 110).

More authentic than this (presumably backdated) saying appears to be an answer that Julian "The apostate" (emperor from 361-363) received. He wanted to reintroduce the pagan cults and revive the Delphic oracle. When his emissaries came to Delphi, the holy place was looked after by only a few priests and the Pythia, whose motto was:

“Tell the ruler that the art-blessed site has been destroyed;
Phoibos no longer has a roof and no prophetic laurel;
The speaking spring has fallen silent, the murmuring water is silent. " (2 p. 111).

The "pagan" religions and with them Delphi have perished. The Pythian saying has remained: "Recognize yourself", as the epitome of all philosophy. 

Continued Religions of Antiquity VI.

Read the article under "Strange Stories" "Gods and oracles - old hat?".

(1) Bruit-Zaidman, Luise / Schmitt-Pantel, Pauline, The Religion of the Greeks, CH Beck, Munich, 1994.
(2) Giebel, Marion, The Oracle of Delphi, Reclam, Stuttgart, 2001.
(3) Maaß, Michael, Delphi Orakel am Navel der Welt, Jan Thorbecke, Sigmaringen, 1996 (many good pictures).
(4) Mertz, Bernd A., Greece, Goldmann, Munich 1991.