The Delphic Oracle

Nov 2016
Around 800 BCE, the sanctuary of Delphi, as excavation finds indicate, was erected on the remains of an archaic oracle sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Themis, who in the myths had taken over her function from her mother, the archaic oracle goddess Gaia, the earth goddess of the indigenous population and mother of the snake Python, who was female according to the oldest known Python myth, but was later transgendered. The fact that Gaia and Themis were the original oracle goddesses of Delphi has been established since Bachofen and Rohde.

The model for a Greek oracle goddess could have been the Egyptian Cobra goddess Wadjet, whose oracle temple stood in Buto. According to Herodotus, the idea of an institutionalized oracle goddess has spread from Egypt to Greece. That goddesses and priestesses acted as oracle originators and proclaimers, had a long tradition in Mesopotamia, which reaches back to the early 2nd millenium BCE in the Ancient Near East, when the kings of Assyria and Mari obtained oracles of the goddess Ishtar in all important political matters, being imparted to them by Ishtar priestesses in ego-form (that is, the priestesses being the voice of the goddess).

It should be remembered that Delphi is not exclusively an Apollo temple, but the temple of two gods, Apollo and Dionysus. The origin of the Apollo is uncertain, probably it was an Indo-European import, perhaps it came from the Near East. Dionysos´ origin can be located with certainty in Thrace. After Athens and Thebes, Delphi was the most important cult site of Dionysus, especially from the 4th century BCE, when the eastern gable was dedicated to Apollo and the western gable to Dionysus during the construction of the new temple. Their connection is explained by the similarity of the ecstatic in the Apollonian oracle cult and in the Dionysus cult. The temple thus served both gods.

Tatian reports of a ´grave´ of Dionysos under the Omphalos, the hearth fire of the goddess Hestia in the Delphic temple, and that the gods shared the stay in the temple: Dionysus in winter, when Apollo stayed with the Hyperboreans, and Apollo during the rest of the year. The ´grave´ contained the remains of Dionysus, torn apart by the Titans and handed over to Apollo by Zeus. The resurrection of Dionysus was celebrated every two years in winter in the forests of Mount Parnassus, near Delphi, when Apollo was away from ´home´. The destiny of the god was re-enacted, i.e. the Thyiads (female followers of the Dionysus cult) coming from Athens and Delphi, after the return of the god from his two-year stay in the realm of the dead of the Persephone, absorbed the power of the god in a rapturous state by eating the flesh of a torn goat representing the dismembered god.

Back to the Delphic Oracle. The following is common knowledge: The Pythia, the oracle priestess, sat in the temple on a chair whose three legs stood for past, present and future and under which fumes escaped from a crevice which, in addition to the laurel leaves chewed by the visionary, caused her ecstatic state. The interviews were usually conducted on the 7th day of the month. For the less monied people, only yes-no questions were possible, the rich could count on more complex answers. However, Pythia's utterances were so cryptic that the male priests had to ´translate´ them in understandable messages. At this point skeptical objections were occasionally raised already in antiquity. It was suspected that the priesthood was bribed by questioners in order to provide information with which decisions desired by the questioner could be legitimized, whereby the formulations never turned out to be so clear that the fraud was obvious. It can also be presumed that the priesthood employed a kind of secret service that constantly provided it with relevant political information.

A possible example of corruption is the following: in 480 BCE the Persians were on the verge of conquering Athens. A first Delphic oracle advised escape. The Athenians under Themistocles, unenthusiastic, commissioned a second oracle, which recommended the Athenians to build "wooden walls". There was also talk of the "divine Salamis". Thereupon Themistocles had ships (= wooden walls) built and defeated the Persians in a naval battle near Salamis. One can assume that the Greek general had planned the naval battle from the outset and, in order to cancel out the effect of the inopportune first oracle, sold his plan to the population with the help of the priests as the second "Delphic oracle".

I am not suggesting that all oracles were manipulated by the priests; in this way Delphi would not have been able to survive for several centuries. But there can be no doubt that the priesthood exerted a considerable political influence..