A jumble of small buildings and broken monuments greet visitors at Delphi. Many of these were treasuries built by city states to commemorate their victories and thank the oracle for her advice.
Delphi was the place where Zeus dispatched eagles to find the center of the world and where Apollo established his sanctuary after killing the Python. It is now a site of global cultural significance.
The Sacred Way
In its heyday, the Delphic oracle was consulted on both personal and national issues. Individuals would ask questions about marriage and job prospects, while leaders would seek her advice before starting a war or founding a new city-state. Responses from the Pythia, the oracle’s priestess, were notoriously ambiguous. One 1st century AD philosopher, Plutarch, describes them as being like hexameter poetry or riddles. People would also consult the oracle about natural matters, such as whether a crop would be successful or if a journey would be safe.
Pilgrims and visitors ascended The Sacred Way to reach the temenos, which was surrounded by the imposing temple. Those seeking a consultation with the oracle would sacrifice an animal at the altar at the entrance to the Sacred Way and then wait in a queue to speak to the Pythia. Those who were considered eminent individuals, such as the kings of Corinth, Naxos and Chios, or illustrious statesmen like Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Syracuse, would be given promanteia (right to prior consultation) and could bypass this process.
The oracle was able to become such an important institution thanks in part to its growing wealth. This came largely from the gifts and dedications that were made to the sanctuary by Greek city-states, as well as foreigners such as Croesus of Lydia. These donations helped to finance bigger and better sacred buildings, such as the temple and treasury building.
The Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi is a fascinating and unique monument. The pan-Hellenic sanctuary was the ‘navel of the world’ and the place where Zeus released two eagles, one to the East and the other to the West, so that they met at Delphi, the meeting point (omphalos). This extraordinary combination of human-made and natural environment was charged with sacred meaning and became a symbol of unity of the Greek-speaking world.
The oracle was consulted on private affairs and state-level policy, and the utterances of the Pythia influenced history. This immense prestige made Delphi a destination coveted by all, and its sway was even extended beyond the borders of Greece proper: city-state rulers would consult Delphi before launching war or founding new colonies outside of Greece. This sway caused great controversy and eventually three Sacred Wars.
When the temple was first built by the Milesians, they used a clever design that allowed them to build a traditional-looking temple while keeping the inner chamber open to the sky. This is known as the “hollow temple” or naiskos, and it’s well described in the 2nd-century CE writings of the geographer Pausanias.
The entrance to the temple was in fact a crypt-like antechamber, with a high threshold and a large tetrastyle porch (pronaos). Behind this crypt doorway was a smaller temple or cella that housed the cult statue of Apollo. The temple also featured an adyton (a large open-air terrace) that could seat thousands and was lined with monuments and treasuries that were gifts from state and individual donors to Apollo in thanks for prophecies or good fortune.
The Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum houses Greece’s finest collection of antiquities. Housed in a grand neoclassical building erected between 1866 and 1889, its rich collections cover all aspects of ancient Greek culture from early prehistory to late antiquity. Highlights include the life-sized bronze Charioteer, a figure that once stood on the slope above Delphi commemorating a victorious Pythian race in 478 BC; the Kore (young maiden) and Kouros (young man) sculptures discovered at Mirenda in 1972, which are considered two of the best examples of Archaic art; the Collection of Prehistoric Art that traces the evolution of civilization in the Aegean region from the 6th millennium BC to the end of the Hellenistic period; the Stathatos collection, featuring a timeless treasure trove of miniatures; and the vase and pottery collections presenting an overview of all periods of Greek ceramic production.
A visit to the museum is included in your tour package to Delphi, or you can also explore it independently. It is a few miles away in the central Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, close to the Athens Polytechnic University. Visitors can walk there from Omonia or Victoria metro stations in about 10 minutes; a taxi ride is about a five-minute drive; or hop on a bus or trolleybus from the nearby stop at Politechnio. A reliable rental car is recommended to make the journey from Athens to Delphi and beyond.
In Ancient Greece, the Oracle grew in prominence as a site for law and order, along with spiritual guidance. Its popularity was largely due to the fact that it was the only place where people could ask the gods questions. These visitors, known as “consultants,” would travel for days or weeks to Delphi so they could receive answers to their concerns.
The priestess of the oracle was called the Pythia, and she made cryptic predictions of the future. Her answers, which were always difficult to understand, determined everything from the when a farmer planted his seedlings to whether an empire went to war. The omphalos, or center (literally the navel) of the world was believed to be located in Delphi.
A major part of the sanctuary was a temple built directly into the mountain itself, and it contained treasury buildings where all the important Greek city-states donated treasures. Various ruins survive, including the Temple of Apollo, a theatre, and the coliseum, which was used for athletic contests.
Delphi attracted kings and dignitaries from across the ancient world, but it also had a special pull for regular members of society. The ancient author Plutarch mentions a number of famous figures who sought the advice of the Pythia, including King Midas and the leader of the Roman Empire, Hadrian. But consulting the Pythia wasn’t a right of every citizen, and she was only available to give prophecies nine days each year.